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Police Practice.

Operation Clean Sweep Curbing Street-Level Drug Trafficking

Rialto, California, a city of 90,000 residents located in San Bernardino County, sits approximately 60 miles east of Los Angeles. A working-class city from which many residents commute to nearby Los Angeles and Orange Counties, it has experienced phenomenal population growth. Over the last 30 years, the population has nearly tripled. Many of the new residents came in search of affordable housing and a better quality of life, which they found in Rialto, a diverse community with significant African American, Hispanic, Caucasian, and Native American populations. Still, Rialto faces the same problems as other cities. Illegal drugs, gangs, and violent crime threaten to undermine public safety and erode the quality of life of the city's residents.

Traditional methods for combating street-level drug trafficking focus on three basic strategies: high-profile, proactive patrols, which emphasize aggressively stopping and detaining pedestrians and motorists; buy-bust operations, in which officers promptly arrest suspects who sell narcotics to undercover officers; and demand reduction and prevention programs, such as Drug Awareness and Resistance Education and Gang Resistance Education and Training. Recognizing that one strategy alone cannot eradicate street-level drug trafficking, the Rialto Police Department consistently has employed all three. While this unified response had worked in the past, in April 1999, the department noted a significant rise in gang activity and street-level drug traffic king. The department needed a new drug suppression strategy. Operation Clean Sweep filled that need.

Using the SARA model (scanning, analysis, response, assessment) advocated by problem-oriented policing, [1] the department's Street Crime Attack Team (SCAT) [2] determined that Operation Clean Sweep should aim at achieving a major reduction in street-level dealing by developing such strong prosecution cases that, once arrested, as many dealers as possible would receive certain incarceration. To achieve these goals, the team would need to ensure the following essential elements: a target list of dealers; creative use of technology to gather evidence; close liaison with the district attorney's office; cooperation with other law enforcement agencies; strategic use of the media; and an assessment of the results.

Developing a Target List

First, SCAT bad to identify the drug hot spots and dealers. Members of the team compiled and analyzed information on drug-related calls for service from the department's computer-assisted dispatch database and from citizen calls to a drug hot line. Meeting with patrol officers, detectives, and Neighborhood Watch groups provided valuable, up-to-the-minute insight into activity on the street. The community's involvement via these methods proved critically important. Neighborhood residents often know even more information than the best beat officers do; they can provide important intelligence.

Using New Technology

To enhance the operation, the team relied on an invaluable piece of new technology, a small video camera capable of filming the participants in a drug transaction and recording their voices at the same time. [3] After installing the camera in an unmarked police car, the team designed a sting operation to maximize the results obtained from the new camera. When the drug dealers approached the uncover vehicle (a late-model car not known on the street) to sell their wares, a team member activated the hidden camera, which filmed the entire illicit transaction. After each sale, the undercover vehicle departed, and a uniformed officer in a marked police car made a "routine" stop or detention to establish the dealer's identity. During the detention, the officer took an instant photograph of the suspect, later showing the photo to the undercover officer to confirm the suspect's identity. The uniformed officer released the dealers after establishing their identities; typically, they sauntered back to their neighborhoo ds thinking they had again beat the system. Meanwhile, the undercover officer was submitting the drugs to the crime lab for evidentiary analysis and completing the appropriate crime reports.

Establishing Liaison with the District Attorney

The district attorney's (DA's) office is the gatekeeper of criminal prosecutions. Thus, any successful prosecution necessarily requires satisfying the DA's requirements. Beyond that, experience shows that members of the DA's office, law enforcement officers, and members of the community need to work together. To achieve the successful prosecutions Operation Clean Sweep required, the department teamed with a deputy DA (DDA) from the outset, to familiarize him with the details of the operation and so that he could offer advice to enhance the prosecution of the suspects. The same DDA would handle all of the operation's cases.

After undercover officers had completed buys from all identified dealers, processed the evidence, and completed all reports, the cases went to the DA's office for prosecution. The DDA decided to employ the complaint warrant process, obtaining an arrest warrant for each and every suspect. [4]

Cooperating with Other Agencies

Long before the DA's office issued the arrest warrants, the department knew that arresting the offenders who participated in 89 separate hand-to-hand narcotic buys would require a multiagency effort. The arrest plans included 15 other agencies, and for 3 days during September 1999, teams of law enforcement personnel from police departments throughout the region, as well as the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department, the California Department of Justice, the Probation and Parole Departments, and the California Highway Patrol, helped serve the arrest warrants.

The tactical team assessed the level of risk at each of the planned arrest or search warrant locations, determining whether the SWAT team would be needed. Each arrest team held the appropriate warrants and information files. In addition to serving the warrants, the teams took advantage of the extra personnel and conducted simultaneous compliance checks on 400 probationers in Rialto and surrounding communities.

Using the Media

The media can play an important role in a department's crime prevention efforts. The Rialto Police Department worked with the media in several different ways during Operation Clean Sweep. First, the department invited the media to accompany officers during the arrests (members of the press did not enter the suspects' residences). Next, the department held a press conference to announce the arrests. The media received video clips of several of the arrests, as well as some of the drug buys, so they could air them (taking appropriate precautions to conceal the identities of the suspects and the undercover officers) on the news. Watching individuals get arrested on the nightly news might deter others from committing similar crimes. Finally, the department asked community residents to talk to the media during the press conference. During the interviews, the residents could speak firsthand about how Operation Clean Sweep had given them the freedom to enjoy their homes, let their children play outside, and walk to the store without being accosted by drug dealers.

Assessing the Results

Operation Clean Sweep resulted in the arrest and prosecution of more than 100 felons. Officers took 70 drug dealers into custody; another 22 fled town or went underground. The department recovered significant amounts of drugs, weapons, cash, and stolen property and also discovered a clandestine methamphetamine laboratory. Based on the evidence obtained during the roundup, the department obtained 12 additional search warrants, with the follow-up investigations yielding even more contraband. Several offenders--including a serial rapist who recently had been released from prison--face three-strike enhancements and long prison sentences.

The videotapes that documented the drug buys greatly enhanced and expedited the prosecution of the suspects. The camera's high-quality video and sound left little doubt as to the suspects' culpability, and most pleaded guilty when confronted with the evidence. The camera's $1,200 cost seemed little to pay for such worthwhile results.


The techniques Operation Clean Sweep employed seem simple. Yet, simple solutions are often the most overlooked. First, the department realized it had a problem--street-level drug trafficking. Next, it established a strategy to solve the problem: arrest the offenders and develop iron-clad cases to get and keep them off the streets. To achieve these objectives, the department worked closely with the community, the district attorney's office, other area law enforcement agencies, and the media. The technology it used--a miniature video camera--helped build strong cases against the offenders and more than paid for itself by allowing the department to seize large amounts of contraband and interrupt the activities of a multitude of drug offenders.

Successful undercover operations come in all shapes and sizes, but they don't have to be complex, unwieldy, or demand huge amounts of resources. Indeed, Operation Clean Sweep proves that with proper planning and the right tools, law enforcement agencies can develop effective strategies to keep their communities safe.

Chief Meyers leads the Rialto California, Police Department.


(1.) See H. Goldstein, Problem-Oriented Policing (New York: McGraw Hill, 1990).

(2.) A seven- or eight-person team initiated in the early 1990s, SCAT uses a proactive, problem-solving approach to preventing crime. The team can tackle crime problems without pulling patrol officers from calls for service.

(3.) Agencies should check with their legal advisors or local prosecutors before employing this technique. The law in some states prohibits the use of surreptitious voice recording without a court order or the consent of all of the parties.

(4.) The DDA chose this method over the grand jury process, in which all of the suspect get indicted at the same time, then proceed to trial without a preliminary hearing.
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Article Details
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Author:Meyers, Michael A.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
Previous Article:The Citizen Police Academy.
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