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Team on a mission to eliminate drugs from streets

August 27, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

Ernie Limon knows the Imperial Valley in a little different way than most of us.

That's because he spends his time in locations most avoid, such as back alleys where crimes can occur on a daily basis.

Limon spends his time in such areas because he has a mission, one he shares with the members of his newly formed specialized police unit known as the Street Interdiction Team.

The team's mission: to knock out drug possession, sales and use at the street level. In doing so, Limon wants to reduce the risk of families being hurt by drugs.

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Limon is the commander of the Street Interdiction Team, which started operations Aug. 1. His unit includes four other officers, all selected from police agencies in the Valley.

There is one officer from the El Centro Police Department, one from the Calexico police, one deputy from the county Sheriff's Office and soon a Brawley police officer will join the unit. Limon is with the state Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.

Limon and all those involved with the team want to see it both maintained and expanded. Based on the daily activity in which the team has been involved, expansion may become a necessity.

The idea for such a team was spearheaded by Calexico Police Chief Tommy Tunson, together with El Centro Police Chief Raymond Loera and Brawley police Lt. Henry Graham.

"They realize there is a major problem of use and abuse at the street level," said Limon, who allowed an Imperial Valley Press reporter and photographer to join him on a recent surveillance mission in El Centro.

In a dark unmarked car, Limon drove along Fourth Street, stopping in front of a car dealership across the street from a liquor store.

It is an area known for drug activity.

It didn't take long for Limon to spot an individual near the liquor store who was acting suspiciously. Pulling out his binoculars, Limon started to watch the person, looking for any indication a drug deal might be in the works.

Limon pointed out that a normal customer of a business goes in, makes a purchase, then leaves. If a person is not going inside the business but is simply standing outside, pacing, looking in all directions as if nervous, it could be a sign.

"It always draws your attention when they look down the street as if they are doing countersurveillance," Limon said.

At that moment, a call came in from two team members patrolling the area in another vehicle on State Street.

"10-15," was called over the radio.

The agents had made a stop for possible possession of a narcotic.

Limon dropped his binoculars and drove across the street from the Greyhound Bus station, where the other team had someone in a vehicle.

Limon joined the officers, each dressed in plainclothes except for black shirts that identified them as police.

Returning to the reporter, Limon said, "It looked like they saw a sale."

He added it turned out not to be a sale, but the suspect detained did appear to be under the influence of a narcotic. That individual was then taken to the El Centro Police Department to be questioned and to have tests done to see if he was under the influence.

A short time later, the team members were back on patrol, again keeping their eyes focused on the streets.

That's how it works — quick investigations, quick arrests, then back out on the streets as soon as possible to try to make more arrests.

"This is strictly street-level stuff," Limon said. "If an investigation is going to go beyond the streets, we turn it over" to another agency that can conduct an extended investigation.

Tunson, interviewed while giving a reporter a tour of Calexico's streets, said, "We need to have street-level narcotic interdiction to protect the citizens of all communities within Imperial County."

Tunson, together with Loera and Graham and supported by police chiefs throughout the Valley and county Sheriff Harold Carter, co-authored the grant proposal that led to the creation of the interdiction team.

The Imperial Valley was able to obtain a grant through the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which operates offices throughout the nation in spots known as high-intensity drug-trafficking areas.

California has such an office based in San Diego that serves both that county and Imperial County — both counties are considered high-intensity drug-trafficking zones. The office is known as the California Border Alliance Group.

While Tunson would not disclose how much money the Valley received, he said it is enough to sustain the interdiction team through 2003.

At that time, he said, another grant proposal will have to be drafted to seek further funding to maintain the program.

This is the first time, Tunson said, the Imperial Valley has had such a specialized unit attacking drugs at the street level — one small arrest at a time.

He said there are existing major narcotic task forces throughout the state and in the Imperial Valley that focus on larger drug-trafficking investigations.

The Street Interdiction Team can offer immediate protection on the streets.

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