New-old anticrime tool: foot patrols. Back-to-basics plan having effect in one area of Los Angeles

In an age when authorities are using airborne radar, Navy gunboats, and other high-tech hardware to try to subdue drug dealers, police in Los Angeles are turning to an old-fashioned technique: shoe leather. On any given day, Sgt. Joseph Peyton, patrolman James Craig, or some other officer can be seen walking the beat around 87th Place and Wall Street in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city - an area that, in recent years, has become a 24-hour ``supermarket'' for cocaine.

The foot patrol is part of operation STRAP - ``Stop The Rock, Assist Police'' - an attempt by authorities, with the help of neighborhood residents, to draw a Maginot line in the seemingly unwinnable war on drugs.

It is a campaign that could be going on in New York's South Bronx, Miami's Liberty City, or some other crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood.

It contains all of the familiar elements: angry residents, frustrated police, an out-of-control gang and drug problem.

The police here have no illusions about stamping out the drug problem. They are trying to contain it, make a symbolic stand, take back the streets in one small area and hope it spreads.

``We went out there and spent a lot of money and put a lot of people in jail,'' says Lt. Don Irvine of the Los Angeles Police Department's Southeast Division. ``But we were having very little effect. What we're trying to do is take a little stab at the network of narcotics trafficking.''

South-Central Los Angeles, where the effort is centered, is not on the normal tour-bus route of the city.

It is a 43-square-mile, largely black area that excels in crime statistics. It has the highest homicide rate in the city and unenviable numbers for rape, robbery, and burglary.

It has also become a hub for drug trafficking - particularly ``rock,'' a highly addictive and potent form of cocaine.

Much of the area's rise in violent crime in recent years has been attributed to an upsurge in gang and drug activity. In some areas, residents say they are wary of venturing beyond their window-barred homes at night and, at times, even during the day.

Some high school students are said to wear beepers in the classroom so they can be alerted to make a sale on the street.

``We're in prison in our homes,'' says Estelle Van Meter, a South-Central activist who has lived in the area for more than 50 years. ``We are in jail. The people doing these things, the gangs, are walking the streets.''

Last month, the Los Angeles Police Department was given a special $3.5 million allotment from the City Council to deal with rising crime. The Southeast Division got $150,000. At first a number of undercover raids were staged to thwart traffickers. The result was 750 arrests in a four-week period.

But police contend that bulging holding cells did little to stop the dealing. So earlier this month they decided to begin foot patrols, a tactic seldom used in residential areas anymore, in a nine-square-block section of South-Central. The idea was not to make arrests, but to be seen.

``We want to mobilize the community, to assist them in taking the streets back,'' says Kirk Albanese, a foot patrolman.

Police say the results have been ``remarkable'' so far. The buyers and sellers that work the area, a residential neighborhood of California bungalows and squat, stucco homes, appear to have retreated, while residents have started coming out.

``Two weeks ago, we would not have had people out here playing on the street,'' says patrolman James Craig.

Some residents agree. Al Denmion is sitting on a stool behind a chain-link fence in front of his apartment building. He says the drug dealing had gotten so bad he couldn't sleep at night.

``It's delicious,'' he says of the police presence, flashing a gap-toothed grin. ``I can sleep again.''

Down the street, Kirlee Sanders, bewhiskered and wearing a duckbill cap, echoes those sentiments. ``It's the best thing I've seen happen,'' says the 20-year resident. ``It was just outrageous out here. They'd come by and shoot anywhere along here. And I'm talking guns, not dope.''

On this day, several foot-patrol officers have organized a group of area residents to help paint over graffiti on houses and sidewalks. ``I'm tired of them [gang members] marking up my walls,'' says a paint-spattered Debra Alexander defiantly. ``Everytime they mark it up, I'm going to paint it again.''

Police know they have some of the cocaine dealers worried. They know by the death threats that have come in at division headquarters, as well as by the windshield that was smashed the other night on a parked squad car.

Yet the residents are not naive. They know that once the officers move on to another neighborhood - as they eventually will - the drug dealers can come back. Some resent the presence of the police in the first place.

``It's cool what they're doing,'' says one resident. ``But what happens when they go?

The police plan to work the area until the drug dealing has stopped. Then they will move on to another neighborhood in South-Central. They are banking on residents phoning in tips and organizing to take control of the streets themselves once police leave. They are also hoping other police jurisdictions in the city will follow suit with foot patrols.

But even if they don't, and even if the dealers return here, residents seem to have enjoyed what respite they've had from the world of cocaine chaos.

``It's a sign of hope,'' says Mr. Sanders.

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