Street Without Hope

On Madison Street, crowds of crack-addicted homeless are plaguing police and downtown businesses. But no one seems to be doing much about it.

As if to illustrate the point, Laslavic eases the patrol car off 11th Avenue about 10:25 p.m. and accelerates east onto Madison. Wilson scoots himself a little forward in his seat and peers through the windshield as the car speeds toward the crowd.

"South side?" Laslavic calls, wondering which side of the street to hit.
"No, north side," says Wilson. "See it. Right there at Vinnies."
The car flies past the fenced empty lots between 10th Avenue and Ninth, and noses abruptly to the curb in front of St. Vincent de Paul. Laslavic and Wilson leap out, shouting in unison: "Watch their hands, watch their hands."

They plunge into a crowd of about 15 people, targeting two men walking swiftly together, heads down, eyes peering out from the corners at the onrushing cops.

Laslavic pins one man to the wall of the building and cuffs him.
Wilson reaches through a tangle of moving arms and grabs a wrist of the other man. Then, in a sweeping move, he presses him against the wall and twists open the man's clenched fist, which is holding some gravel-size chunks that look to be crack cocaine.

Laslavic frisks the other man and finds $250.
The arrest effectively ends the patrol's night on the street and begins about four hours of process and paperwork--a major reason "intensive enforcement" in this area exists in name alone.

With two cars at the most assigned to cover Madison Street and the shelter area, the cops have to ration their arrests. Patrols in the area are further limited by the fact that officers assigned there are often pulled away to cover the seven government housing projects and emergencies elsewhere in the city.

And the two-cops-per-car mandate after the killing of Officer Marc Atkinson in late March has played further havoc with patrols in the area. Many of the officers have been pulled off to assist in other precincts.

Yet in the shelter area, two-officer patrols are the only way the police can do their job. Laslavic says he would never try to make the kind of drug arrest alone that he made with Wilson.

"Too many people. Too many hands to watch. If I'm all by myself, the only thing I can really do is drive up and down the street, look at people and use the PA system."

Lieutenant Richard Groeneveld, who heads the 10-member squad that covers the shelter area, concedes, "I wish I could tell you we had the resources for this. But we don't.

"We want the officers to go down there and be visible, but we get in situations where we have to go off to other areas. Nighttime, when we get a lot of emergency calls elsewhere, can be especially tough."

The half-dozen officers interviewed for this story say that one of the frustrations of their drug enforcement work is that the dealers on Madison know when they have free rein; they know when the police begin and end their shifts, and when the cops aren't there at all. And they usually make the most of it.

Officers say that a sizable group of dealers are undocumented Mexicans. Laslavic and Wilson say the two men arrested on this night are fairly typical of the illegals they arrest for dealing. Both are in their 20s. As the evening unfolds, the one holding the money admits to a Spanish-speaking officer that the two had met a week or so earlier while staying at CASS and began selling drugs as a team.

He tells the officer that he didn't know where his partner got the drugs, that he had paid a coyote $1,500 to cross him into the United States somewhere outside Nogales.

Both men use the drugs they sell and have prior criminal records in Arizona and Utah. There's a good chance they'll be turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation.

Of the 26 narcotics arrests made early in the effort, at least seven were undocumented immigrants from Mexico. One had already been turned over to the INS. The rest were waiting to be transferred.

None of the officers who work Madison Street have any illusions about the effectiveness of their work. They know that their impact is temporary. They know they'll probably be conducting another Madison Street crackdown or special enforcement again before the year is out. They expect to see the people they arrest back on the street again and again. And they know that even if illegals from Mexico weren't involved, the U.S. has its own rainbow coalition of drug dealers already hard at work.

Police aren't the only ones frustrated by the drug dilemma. Homeless drug addicts and the people providing services for them say the lack of effective programs is keeping people on the streets. The wait to get into programs can last from days to months. Such delays might be a useful test of resolve. But most seasoned observers don't see it that way.

"That kind of delay reduces the likelihood of getting effective treatment to about zero," says Casey Ewbank, a social worker at Good Samaritan Hospital who earlier in the 1990s ran ComCare's homeless outreach team and helped develop Project Heart, a federally funded state-run treatment program for homeless addicts. "This would be true for anyone wanting help. But it's especially true with the homeless. They have no way to be contacted when openings occur."

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