A sheriff’s deputy fears drug dealers are winning the battle for Sacramento’s Central Division
Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy Henry Harry entered a tangled net of tiny suburban streets. Instead of a uniform, he wore a lime-green polo shirt, and instead of a cruiser, he drove a journalist’s dirty Toyota. He turned onto a street densely packed with people. A young man in a wheelchair held a brightly dressed baby while a half-dozen women chatted around him. A couple of young women were just leaving the house. From an open garage door, two men laughed at an adolescent watering the front lawn with the hose between his legs at an obscene angle. Farther down, a boy with a plastic tub of water prepared to throw it over a girl in shorts. Her hair was already wet.
On this one dense block, where neighbors congregated in the streets, Harry claimed that drug dealing was going on behind closed doors.
“The strategy that would work on this team,” said Harry, “is to take down one of the four houses on a search warrant, because when you do that, the other people are going to probably stop selling.”
Harry, with his shaved head, well-muscled physique and impeccable wardrobe, has worked the unincorporated Central Division of Sacramento County for about two years as the area’s only full-time drug-elimination officer. He defines the Central Division as extending from 14th Avenue in the north to Calvine Road in the south and from Franklin Boulevard in the west to Grant Line Road in the east.
In Harry’s opinion, Sacramento County and the sheriff’s department share the blame for letting turf wars, drug-related violence and arrogant dealers increase in the Central Division. Past partnerships between the sheriff and citizens led to sweeps and crackdowns, said Harry, but these were temporary solutions. The criminals always returned.
In recent months, Harry has noticed that drug dealers have gotten brazen, more threatening. Intensifying criminal activity might not show up in the crime statistics, but then Harry doesn’t have a lot of faith in the way the county tracks crime. And even though the county’s struggling with a severe budget deficit, Harry believes that the current problem demands attention.
At a winter meeting of the county board of supervisors, the county’s chief financial officer began his financial report by saying, “I believe this is the worst fiscal situation that the county has faced in its 150 years.” With the loss of vehicle-license-fee revenue and a state budget crisis, the county is considering drastic cuts in services.
Harry stood up and chastised the sheriff and the board during the same meeting. What he didn’t know was that other deputies would fill the room that day to protect the sheriff’s share of the budget.
“I work with some of the fine people in this room,” said Harry, gesturing to the crowd behind him. “The sheriff’s department and this board appear to have abandoned the Central Division. Too many of our neighbors live in fear of drug dealers who rule the streets just 15 feet outside of their front doors and windows and have gone unchallenged by law enforcement.”
There was only one officer devoted to drug elimination in the Central Division, said Harry, and the board was looking at him. “I was given a rubber band and a paper clip and told to fight a war on drugs,” he said.
Harry requested a five-year plan for the elimination of drug dealing in the Central Division, and he backed up his request with a letter in February asking for greater oversight of the sheriff’s budget, both by citizens and the board.
Susan Serpa, a former Central Division resident who advocated for it throughout the 1990s, followed Harry with a collection of letters from residents. “I have witnessed numerous drug deals, heard the constant ringing of gunfire and found dozens of spent bullets when I walked my dogs,” read one. “The bad guys constantly speed, powerbrake, spin donuts and run into cars, fences and houses. They have driven up on sidewalks trying to run me over.”
By e-mail to SN&R, sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Lou Fatur responded that “there are 92 authorized positions” in the Central Division, but without a new budget in place, he couldn’t comment on the sheriff’s future plans.
Illa Collin, who represents District 2 on the county board of supervisors, also replied to questions by e-mail: “I have great respect for Henry Harry,” she wrote. “In the best of worlds, we would have the Sheriff and the City police working hand in hand in these areas. … But, we do not live in a world with adequate resources for either the Sheriff, or Code Enforcement. I am as frustrated as my constituents are.”
Collin went on to claim that “we have wanted lots more action from the Sheriff’s Department in this area for years.”
Collin also provided evidence that partnerships were working in the Central Division, mentioning a newly constructed Boys and Girls Club. She ended by saying, “The main problem areas that we deal with that are frustrating all revolve around law enforcement issues, and for that we cannot set the priorities. The Sheriff does that.”
Based on a plan Harry drafted with his supervisors last summer, the sheriff’s department recently has added three full-time officers to the Central Division drug-elimination program. The county, meanwhile, is considering a special tax to increase, or at least maintain, law enforcement in the Central Division.
Gliding down streets with names like Morning Star Drive and Clover Manor, Harry, in his polo shirt, told stories about recent clashes between law enforcement and citizens. They had convinced him that the Central Division was growing increasingly dangerous.
“I can tell you,” he said at one point, “I thought we were going to be in a riot.”
Cruising seemingly peaceful but obviously poor neighborhood streets, Harry pointed at a corner. “This is where they tried to pull a criminal away from an officer,” he said. “Then, we had another incident right over here. … We’re chasing this guy. Again, people come out of the woodwork. They’re walking down the streets, they’re taunting officers … and one of the lieutenants on the scene said, ‘Hey, we got the bad guy in custody. Let’s forget about looking for the gun. Let’s just pull out before this thing gets bad.’” Harry remembered the aggression of the crowd. “It was the right move,” he concluded.
The department responded to these incidents by implementing a series of zero-tolerance actions in the neighborhood, but Harry and Serpa call such actions bandages for problems that need constant attention.
Harry’s faith in drug-elimination plans developed while he was under contract with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, which paid to have him look after 14 problem properties. Working with community leaders and building trust relationships with residents, Harry found that his continuous attention managed to push dealers away.
To show off an example of his success, Harry pulled the dirty Toyota into the Sun Valley Apartments on 50th Avenue.
While the manager, Evelyn Jones, worked, Harry stood in the open door of the management office and called to local kids. One of them, he clapped on the shoulder. “I told you I was going to clean this place up, didn’t I?” he said.
A young man in a bright white T-shirt and a large glittering cross heard Harry’s deep voice saying, “You ain’t going to say hi to me?” and ducked into a doorway. A moment later, the boy sauntered back out, seemingly unsure of who’d called him.
Harry stood with his arms held open. “You don’t recognize me out of uniform,” he said, and the youth walked up, flashed Harry a huge smile and gave him a cool half-hug.
After the kid left, Harry said that officers had caught that same kid with marijuana and had gotten him for selling. The young man had gone to prison and now was out again. “We’ve got another 30 years of dealing with that guy,” said Harry.
According to Harry, the apartment complex had been making two or three calls a day, five or six days a week, to the sheriff’s department before Harry arrived.
“If you stand here for a while,” he said, “you can get to know 90 percent of the bad guys.”
Harry’s strategy of enlisting apartment managers as partners in identifying drug dealers, and of befriending residents, led to approximately four evictions, said Jones. It also chased off the regular dealers who didn’t live there. Within six to eight months, the complex was down to a weekly phone call or two to the sheriff.
Harry admitted that his friendliness, even to drug dealers, also kept him safe. “It’s like Mayberry,” he said. “Who would shoot Andy Griffith from Mayberry?”
According to Harry, residents will give officers invaluable information when they believe an officer is permanent. A full-time officer sees the same faces over and over again. If a group moves down to the next complex, the officer will recognize the group and move it off again.
Sandra Watson, manager for Willow Pointe Apartments on Sunnyslope Drive, agrees with Harry’s methods. Officers like Harry, she said, started calling attention to the no-trespassing signs, and dealers who were on probation started realizing they’d go to jail if they kept returning.
Harry said he’s even called parole officers on the spot to convince dealers to leave the premises.
Most of them got the point, said Watson.
Though Harry isn’t sure it’s possible to win the war on drugs, he does believe that focused enforcement can keep arrogant dealers from working out in the open. The sight of deals taking place around kids riding bikes has stuck with him.
Harry’s rhetoric and his smooth presentation give him the persona of an up-and-coming politician. A partially constructed Web site at www.goharry.net explains an all-out campaign to get more officers into the Central Division. It even reads like a stump speech.
“The challenges we face require fair, deliberate and bold leadership,” reads one page. “My mission in Central, and beyond its borders, is clear: Fight for the children. Fight for the officers. Fight for justice. Run criminals off the streets. Secure the apartment complexes. Eliminate open air drug markets. Take back the troubled neighborhoods one by one and hold them.”
But the next step, according to Harry and Serpa, is to hold a large community meeting, air grievances and come up with a division-wide plan for presentation to the board.
Harry admits that within the community, issues range far and wide. Some people are most concerned with getting speed bumps. Others, like Serpa, are dogging code enforcement so that absentee landlords aren’t renting to dealers and driving down property values. But these issues, according to Harry, are secondary to crime.
Referring specifically to the lack of constant pressure on drug dealers in the Central Division, Harry said, “We can all agree that law enforcement sucks.”