Could shifting cop power to fight the war on drugs leave a crack in the system?
The boy raised his arm and made a fist—a salute, maybe, or not—as the unmarked cop car drove by. The boy at the phone booth—maybe 19 or 20 years old in jeans and a white T-shirt—punched the air and followed the vehicle with his eyes as we cruised slowly up West Fourth Street. Up the street toward Keystone Avenue, turning around into an alley east of the Gold Dust West.
We’d driven past the phone booth three times.
The undercover officer saw the boy’s gesture without turning his head. The cop kept driving, ball cap pulled low on his forehead, eyes on the road.
“If we drive by enough times, they figure out who we are,” Mike said, turning to his partner, Sonny. “[This area] might have to be a future project.”
(Mike and Sonny are not the real names of these two undercover officers with the Reno Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit. “Sometimes [dealers] key in on first names,” Sonny said.)
Combating street crime is like playing Whack-a-Mole. About the time officers beat vice down on one area, it pops up in another. While Mike and Sonny are at work on a longer-term project about a mile from downtown, things are picking up on Fourth Street. Just a week ago or so, the Reno police pulled a guy out of the Carriage Inn with 40 grams of rock cocaine.
That’s not a huge bust. A hit is about .3 grams and sells for $20 in Reno, Mike tells me. So 40 grams makes 133 hits or so—worth a bit more than $2,500.
But the Reno cops weren’t making a drug call. They stumbled on the coke during a routine call for domestic violence or a fight, Mike said.
“And whenever you pull a guy out who has that much cocaine …”
Identifying future projects is a hobby right now for these two busy undercover members of the RPD’s Street Crimes Unit. Right now, the team—three officers under the command of Sgt. Chuck Kendricks—is too small to cover every front. But plans for the unit’s expansion loom large.
In the next couple of months, changes to northern Nevada’s approach to dealing with drug trafficking will triple the RPD’s Street Crimes Unit from four to 12 officers. And another law enforcement team that’s battled drug dealers for nearly two decades in Washoe County will be disbanded. The Consolidated Narcotics Unit—a team of officers from Reno, Sparks and Washoe County under the supervision of Lt. Jim Forbus of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department—will wrap up its drug-busting by the end of the year.
“It’s done a pretty good job over the years,” said Reno Police Chief Jerry Hoover. “But, frankly, it’s a little outdated.”
It’s simply evolution, the chief contends. The RPD’s four-person Street Crimes Unit makes an average of 10 arrests a week, he said. Because the CNU works more on time-consuming mid-level drug trafficking cases rather than guys dealing dope on the street corner, the unit makes “far fewer” arrests.
“The CNU can’t respond to citizen complaints while working on these major cases,” Hoover said. “They’ve tried to respond, but they just didn’t have the resources to do it.”
Lt. Forbus of the CNU bristles at the thought that his unit has been less than productive in abating street crime. Despite personnel cuts of about 22 percent due to recent budget crunches, the remaining CNU officers are doing the same amount of work—and have actually increased their “production” as measured in arrests and seizures.
The CNU worked 34 cases from July to September, making 42 arrests, seizing huge quantities of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, marijuana and Ecstasy and racking up more than $50,000 in forfeitures—money and property of drug dealers taken by the CNU.
“These guys hustle down here,” he said.
But not for long.
Hoover said his new two-pronged approach to fighting drug crime has already been given a thumbs-up by law enforcement administrators in Sparks, Washoe County and at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Here’s the plan: Street-level crime will be taken on by a beefed-up SCU under the control of the Reno Police Department. Officers from the Sparks and UNR police departments and the Sheriff’s Department will be assigned to the unit—which will cover Washoe County. Higher-level drug trafficking cases will land in the hands of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which will occasionally be assisted by task forces made up of Reno, Sparks, UNR and county cops.
The community will see a dramatic impact, Hoover said. The Street Crimes Unit, formed about a year ago, works narcotics, prostitution, juvenile alcohol and other vice.
“They’re going after the dealer on the street corner who’s working the neighborhood parks,” Hoover said. “The citizens call every day, saying, ‘He’s down there on the corner, dealing to our kids.’ … The Street Crimes Unit goes in and arrests street dealers, goes in to the neighborhood and knocks on doors, collects intelligence and says, ‘We’re here to help.’ “
Paying attention to street-level crime is important. But Forbus said he fears mid-level drug dealers—like those operating clandestine meth labs—could slip through the cracks.
“In our opinion, there’ll be a gap dealing with mid-level traffickers,” Forbus said. “I guess the evolution of that will dictate whether to start this unit up again if things get out of hand.”
A computer consultant and his wife who own their home in northeast Reno said it’s a great neighborhood. Or it was until they noticed a few guys dealing drugs just blocks away.
“We have very nice people, nice neighbors who’ve been here a long time,” said Louis Izquierdo, a member of a neighborhood watchdog group. “It’s just that corner—the corner of Montello and Oliver.”
At this intersection, there are several pay phones. The pay phones, he said, attract groups of people who don’t live in the neighborhood. Residents are working to have the phones removed.
“They do drugs there, sell drugs … prostitution,” Izquierdo said. “I just hate it. I wish I wasn’t here. … I’ve had confrontations where I’ve told them to get the hell out, or I’ll call the police.”
A year ago, it took a while for the cops to respond to his call. Since early summer, he said, they’re on the scene within about five minutes.
“They’re responding a lot quicker,” he said. That’s good news, because Izquierdo likes his home.
“If we could just clean that corner up, it would be a nice quiet neighborhood,” he said.
The Street Crimes Unit
Taking phone booths off a street corner is a recognized crime-fighting strategy, Mike of the RPD said. It’s part of “crime prevention by environmental design.”
“If you get rid of phones, that makes it harder for [a dealer] to operate,” Mike said.
I met the two undercover officers and their supervisor, Sgt. Kendricks, at the RPD’s headquarters on Second and High streets. We spoke about what it takes to be on the Street Crimes Unit, formerly known as the Street Enforcement Team.
None of the men on the SCU have ever used illegal drugs. Passing a lie detector test with questions about drug use is part of the hiring process. While use of pot might be overlooked if the incident was a long time ago, admitting to use of a harder addictive substance like heroin is grounds for being denied a position.
Though the unit’s focus may eventually narrow to handle drug cases exclusively, the team handles an array of street crime, including prostitution, drugs and underage alcohol use. Mike gave me a few tips on how to spot a fake ID. He described sting operations in crowded bars where plainclothes cops walk in and head to the bathrooms or wait in the back. Teams of uniformed cops come in the front. When underage drinkers try to escape out the back, they’re nabbed.
By running, the underage drinker is identifying herself.
On Thursday night, a paperwork night, the cops were dressed casually. Mike wore a T-shirt; his Levi’s frayed around his shoes. Sonny’s cotton shirt looked napped in.
I asked if there’s a certain look cultivated by undercover cops.
“You try and blend in, match the dress of a john or drug user,” Sonny said. “Drive the same types of vehicles. If you’re buying heroin, you don’t want to look too clean-cut. If you’re buying marijuana, you can be more clean-cut.”
Because I wanted to see the streets through the eyes of Reno’s drug warriors, we hopped in a vehicle parked in the RPD’s giant lot. Not long ago, undercover cop cars were repainted patrol cars. Those were pretty conspicuous, Mike said. He’s happy to have options these days.
We drive to West Fourth Street, where prostitutes and dealers come from out of town to try to make a quick buck. Some come up on casino bus junkets from the Bay Area or Sacramento. Some casinos comp a bus ticket when you buy a drink. And weekly motels make a short stay a cheap proposition.
And profitable. The same hit of cocaine that goes for $5 in urban parts of California, Mike said, goes for $20 in downtown Reno.
We parked near a gas station on West Fourth. The moon was a day away from being full, but its light was eclipsed by the neon of downtown. It was the first really cold night of fall, and the streets were quieter than usual, Mike said. A couple guys hung out near a phone booth. A man on a bike darted between cars in a parking lot, stopping to talk to a driver, then zipping off down a dark street.
A girl crossed the street in front of the Sands Hotel. She walked slowly, pulling her fawn-colored coat around her shoulders against the wind. Her legs were bare.
“There she is again,” he said. “See how she walks up and down an area of a block or two?”
Besides doing covert drug buys backed by officers of the RPD, Mike, 27, and Sonny, a divorced 46-year-old, play johns in order to nab illegal prostitutes working in the Fourth Street corridor. Mike, married with two toddler boys, said that prostitution stings are a sore point with his wife.
“That Julia Roberts myth is the first image people conjure up when they think about prostitution,” Mike said. “But the gals who we’re dealing with have severe addiction problems.”
Working to combat street drugs goes hand-in-hand with fighting illegal prostitution.
“Where prostitution goes, drug use and sales follow,” Sonny said.
“They’re such a good source of information,” Mike added. “These girls are out there 24 hours a day. They know every person who drives by.”
Mike drove around a corner, looking at the girl carefully. At first, Mike thought the girl we saw was a prostitute from Arizona.
“No, she’s too tall,” he decided.
When we drove by the Sands a bit later, the girl’s gone.
“Maybe she went inside,” I suggested. “It is kind of windy.”
“Maybe,” Mike said. “But if I were a betting man, I’d say she was picked up.”
The Consolidated Narcotics Unit
The soon-to-be-defunct Consolidated Narcotics Unit stays busy. Its officers seem to be trying to tie up as many loose ends as possible before they’re reassigned back to patrol units.
On Thursday, the team investigated and began cleaning up a clandestine meth lab in Cold Springs. One suspect, James Ellis, was booked on charges of manufacturing a controlled substance, as well as being a convicted sex offender failing to register. Lt. Forbus dealt with Ellis before. The 33-year-old was convicted of trafficking twice. He did a few years in prison and allegedly started cooking meth again shortly after his release.
“He’s been out a couple of months,” Forbus said. “He’s a couch jumper. He crashes houses, intimidates people living there and uses their home to cook meth. He’s a very nice guy.”
The CNU didn’t find much “finished product” at the trailer, just containers with the remains of meth-making ingredients. They think about four ounces a week were cooked at the lab—then used, sold or traded for sex. Washoe County detectives found the trailer during an investigation of a stabbing incident.
The residence was a meth-making mess.
“These guys don’t care what they do,” Forbus said. “There were used hypodermic needles thrown in a pile with kids’ toys out behind the trailer. This is one of the filthiest labs we’ve ever dealt with.”
Friday was another busy night. The CNU conducted an operation that resulted in the seizure of more than five pounds of cocaine (street value $188,673); five ounces of meth ($2,685); almost 17 ounces of marijuana ($7,500); five rifles, four shotguns and $1,120 cash.
“The deal went well,” said Forbus by phone after the bust. He was busy doing paperwork for the case, talking via speakerphone.
Since the investigation was still pending, he wouldn’t release names or tell me where the Friday bust occurred. But the atmosphere at the station was clearly enthusiastic.
“We’re awesome,” one officer shouted from across the room.
Forbus’ tone of voice changed when talking about the CNU’s break-up in January. He understands the budget constraints that make the change necessary. But he worries that the reorganization won’t get the job done as efficiently.
“Just about everybody down here has a passion for doing this job,” he said. “It’s really disheartening to see this unit broken up. … We get frustrated that [dealers like Ellis] could be jeopardizing families.”
The CNU was formed in 1981 to combat drug trafficking in the Reno area. Forbus worked with the unit from 1996 to 1999, then was promoted and worked in the county jail and on patrol. He came back to the CNU in June 2002.
The unit often relies on informants who’ve been “popped” or arrested on drug charges. Those arrested are ordered to do “substantial assistance” in giving police names and locations of other dealers or drug labs. The CNU uses the information to track street crime to its source. This can take a week—or sometimes a year. The unit often has many cases on its plate at once. If cases overlap, resources have to be allocated carefully.
“Sometimes it’s a fight on the scheduling board,” Forbus said.
The feds at the DEA seem to get along well with the CNU. The two agencies collaborate closely on some cases.
“Right now, we work really well with the CNU,” said Mark Destito, the DEA’s resident agent in charge.
Destito’s 12-person federal agency combats illegal drug trafficking in 14 of Nevada’s 17 counties, as well as four California counties around Lake Tahoe. That’s a large area.
As expected, Destito named meth as the biggest drug issue in this region. The shape of the problem has shifted in the past year, when DEA agents began seeing less powdered meth—cut for users so that the actual quantity of drug is around 20 to 40 percent—and more of the pure product, crystal meth, aka ice.
“A lot of the dope we’ve been buying is 99 percent,” Destito said. “And the labs in this area aren’t able to make that. To get that purity, you’re not talking mom-and-pop, low-level laboratories.”
It’s likely that the crystal meth is coming from Mexico or labs in the Central Valley of California, he said. Reno’s not a source city. Many cases that the DEA starts in Reno don’t end in Reno.
The public never hears about much of the DEA’s work.
In January, the DEA and CNU worked together to seize 10 pounds of crystal meth after receiving a tip about an operation in Sparks. The CNU arrested two dealers at the Peppermill Hotel Casino and later booked their alleged source, Enrique Arrendondo.
Destito credited the agencies’ successes to good police work: investigation, credible street informants and electronic surveillance (done with court orders). The DEA has gadgets most local law enforcers can’t afford. I’m curious, but he won’t say how many residences or places of business are currently bugged.
“We do it a fair amount,” he said.
As far as the break-up of the CNU, Destito said only positive things about working with local cops.
“I’ve worked in a lot of areas, and the cooperation with law enforcement in this area is better than anywhere I’ve been,” he said.
He’s glad that the RPD’s plan includes forming task forces of local officers to assist the DEA.
“Times are tough,” he said. “[Local police] are doing the best they can to do the best for the community. … In a perfect world, the DEA would love to have tons of people working narcotics.”
On the other side of the drug war, a tattooed and jittery entrepreneur couldn’t say whether a change in drug war tactics will affect illegal drug trafficking in Reno.
“I don’t feel qualified to speak on that,” he said. But he did comment on the habits and telltale signs of a narc, a word he used to describe anyone from informants to undercover cops.
“A narc can be anybody,” he said. “It can be your best friend.”
Drug enforcement agencies often use women to do drug buys, he theorized. There’s always something a bit off with a person who’s staging a drug buy. Maybe she’s somebody’s cousin from somewhere, but nobody knows her.
“There’s always something weird attached to it,” he said.
Sometimes a dealer can feel a narc’s fear or nervousness.
“And they offer way too much money,” the man said. “They’re willing to pay top dollar. I’m selling an ounce for $1,400, and they say OK. They’re not even going to try and get it for $700—what I sell for to everyone else.” (He was speaking hypothetically and said he’s not dealing these days.)
Once law enforcers get a dealer for selling dime bags, it’s easy for law enforcement to turn them into informants, he said. From his point of view, spending tons of taxpayer money arresting and sending people to prison for drug sales is a waste.
“They spend an awful lot on a group of pre-diseased people,” he said. “Some of their targets are innocent people with homes and families.”
He thinks rehabilitation should replace incarceration. “Drug abuse is a health problem, not a crime problem.”
He even said he suspects that narcotics officers spend more time targeting small-time dealers instead of going to the root of the problem.
“A lot are going for numbers—quantity, not quality,” he claimed. “They know where huge [meth] kitchens are, and they don’t take them out. It’s all a business, and there’s job security. Even crime fighting’s a business.”
The drive with undercover cops Mike and Sonny was eye-opening. For one thing, the two weren’t arresting prostitutes or drug dealers because they’re at work on a bigger case—one that’s expected to take four weeks. During this time, they won’t be out getting girls off the streets and sending street corner dealers to jail. The upside is that Sgt. Kendricks said the unit expects to break up a ring that’s putting 10 or more pounds of illegal drugs on the streets of Reno every week.
Isn’t that the kind of mid-level casework that usually goes to the CNU?
Kendricks tried to be diplomatic. He described overlapping caseloads and the decision to eliminate the CNU. The case in question was “such a community problem that they couldn’t leave it sit” until January when the changeovers will be complete.
The officers admitted that the new case is a change of pace.
“It is pretty large for us,” Sonny said.
We doubled back through downtown and then down East Fourth Street, which was nearly deserted. Mike recalled a proud moment working the streets in July.
“I asked one gal, ‘Where is everybody at?’ And she said, ‘They’re all in jail.’ That made me happy.”
We pulled into a dark parking lot within sight of a billboard advertising a chunk of USDA beef: “100% tender, guaranteed.” Mike got out of the vehicle with a flashlight to take a closer look at an object on the ground that might be a hypodermic needle or a condom. It was neither.
As we pulled out the alley, a man in a 49ers jacket looked at us and nodded.
“Did you see that?” Mike asked. “He’s selling.”
We drive on. Mike and Sonny are looking forward to seeing more officers in their unit. They’re hoping to be able to fight a new kind of drug war—on many more fronts. Sonny repeated the notion of evolution. He predicted that someday the RPD’s street crime unit may become outmoded.
“This unit could end up dissolved, too,” he said, “evolving to the changing ways of criminals.”
Survival of the fittest hardly seems to apply to the dissolution of the unit that seized in the past three months a couple thousand grams of methamphetamine, hundreds of grams of cocaine, heroin and pot—as well as nearly 300 doses of Ecstasy.
The idea seems more fittingly described by the concept of entropy, an inevitable breakdown in the order of things that leads to chaos. That worries Forbus, who’s lived in southern California. He loves Reno, enjoys the community. He said he’d hate to see things go downhill. That’s why he works as a narc.
“We’re not a bunch of thugs who kick doors in," he said. "We want to improve the quality of life here and stop the evolution of the ghetto."