MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Downtown Los Angeles has long been a haven for drug dealers who prey on the homeless. Much of it happens along L.A.'s Skid Row and many of the dealers are gang members. Now, the city is trying to fight back. It's identifying 80 known dealers and banning them from Skid Row with a legal injunction.
As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, this is just the latest effort to close a thriving drug trade.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: The streets of Skid Row are paved with crack cocaine, heroin and just about every kind of illegal substance out there. One woman too afraid to give her name describes the neighborhood as an open-air market for narcotics dealers.
Unidentified Woman: You see it day in and day out. Bold. I mean they do it right in front of - it's not even on the sly anymore, you know?
DEL BARCO: To demonstrate how pervasive the problem is, LAPD Officer Deon Joseph takes us to the rooftop of a homeless shelter. It takes only moments before we see a transaction directly below us.
Officer DEON JOSEPH (Los Angeles Police Department): Okay, see that guy in the wheelchair right there? Looks like he may be trying to stuff a crack pipe -yep, he just made a drug deal.
DEL BARCO: Joseph says deals like this happen so quickly and so often, it's impossible to catch every street dealer. He says Skid Row is filled with those who exploit all the addicts living here.
Officer JOSEPH: Wolves and sheep. You know, people who really have no place to go, and the wolves that we're passing by right now. About three or four them passed by us while we're here. Let me look in the park right now - big table over there full of them. The tables is where a lot of the shot callers sit. I'm looking at about seven ringleaders.
DEL BARCO: For years, Joseph and the other officers have arrested drug dealers, only to see them right back on the streets. With California prisons so overcrowded, many inmates serve only a fraction of their sentences.
Officer JOSEPH: You know, I remember years ago, drug dealers used to run from me. They don't run anymore because they know. They know. They're just like, all right, Joseph is gonna arrest me. All right, I'll do two weeks. All right, I'll get out and do it again.
DEL BARCO: But a proposed new legal strategy is meant to lock them up for longer. The injunction targets 80 well-known drug dealers. They'd be arrested for so much as stepping foot in the area, and they'd face at least six months behind bars.
Police Captain Todd Chamberlain says it's the first time L.A. is going after the dealers by name - those who've been arrested multiple times.
Captain TODD CHAMBERLAIN (Los Angeles Police Department): They're here because the people who buy their drugs are here, the people they can exploit, the people who they know are weak and are trying to get help, and it's an easy target to sell to them. We're not going to just, you know, throw up our hands and say: This is a no man's land. I think that might have been done for too long, for too many years.
DEL BARCO: L.A. law enforcement has been using injunctions for years to keep gang members from congregating on their home turf. But Bruce Riordan, who heads the city attorney's gang division, says this is the first time his office is targeting gangs who prey on Skid Row.
Mr. BRUCE RIORDAN (City Attorney, Los Angeles): The area has been described as a sort of Switzerland for drug dealing, where the various gangs who would normally be fighting with each other could come to this area, put aside their differences, sell their drugs and then commute back to their territories, where perhaps the next day they go back to war with each other.
Officer JOSEPH: Hey, how are you doing, sir?
DEL BARCO: Back on the streets, Officer Joseph says it's true the street gangs band together to control the drug trade here.
Officer JOSEPH: It's pretty much a gentlemen's agreement. They'll put down their colors and work together with the gang that's most prominent here. You have to get the blessing from them to operate. So they'll allow other gang members. It doesn't matter if you're Crip, Blood, Piru, Swan - it doesn't matter who are you are. They allow you to work for them, work with them and sell your drugs in peace.
DEL BARCO: The injunction still needs to be approved by a judge, but word is already out on the streets. Mark Barcus Butler says he posted a notice about banned dealers on the walls of the recovery shelter where he works. He says people have been checking to see whether their names are listed and that some of them have already begun to lay low.
Mr. MARK BARCUS BUTLER: If we can get the predators out of the area, then the people who are here have a better chance of, you know, getting, receiving the help that we're trying to offer. That's what we've been needing for a while.
DEL BARCO: Some recovering addicts seem relieved, too.
Mr. MURPHY HOLMES: Well, you might be a dealer. I might be a dealer. Dealers are everywhere. See, everybody knows downtown is a holding pod for substance abuse and debauchery.
DEL BARCO: Murphy Holmes says he's lived on Skid Row for 30 years, and he supports the new crackdown on drug dealers.
Mr. HOLMES: Because what they're doing is they're killing their own people. It's called genocide.
DEL BARCO: L.A. police say if the injunction works to keep the first 80 drug dealers out of Skid Row, they'll keep adding names to the list to make the area drug-free.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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