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Taking drugs off the streets: Calif. Special Enforcement Team works to locate users and dealers

TEMECULA, Calif. -- Some days, all it takes is a call from an informant, and they're off and running.

On other days, such as when they're doing surveillance on a house, the work can be long and monotonous.

Whatever kind of day they're having, their schedules are always packed.

The Temecula police Special Enforcement Team is small -- it consists of just two deputies -- but the work they do is crucial to the department's crime-fighting arsenal, said Sgt. Rich Rile, who supervises the team.

Unlike uniformed patrol officers, whose jobs are to respond from one call to the next, and who have limited resources, the plain-clothed members of S.E.T. try to identify patterns and find solutions.

"In terms of the community view, you're making a big impact," Rile said.

Tackling street narcotics
In the two years it has existed, the team has dedicated much of its resources to tackling the problem of street-level narcotics, especially marijuana and methamphetamine. The people they're targeting aren't the big-time drug dealers, and the seizures they make are typically no more than an eighth of an ounce.

But when residents see S.E.T. moving in to make a bust, they come out cheering, Rile said. That's because the drug trade, whether it's happening on a large or small scale, affects the quality of life of residents living on that block. "It may be low-level dealing, but it's very visible."

In an average month, the team -- armed with a trunk-full of binoculars, night vision equipment, Polaroids and drug-testing kits -- will make eight to 12 felony arrests. The team will often work in conjunction with the four members of the department's Problem Oriented Policing team, which is a more visible, community-oriented squad.

They also work with the multi-agency Southwest Corridor Task Force, which goes after high-level drug dealers.

Murrieta to get team
This and other Special Enforcement Teamshave been so successful that the Murrieta police will soon be launching their own team.

A Murrieta team existed a few years ago, but was scrapped for budget reasons. Now, the department has committed to keeping the team intact, said Sgt. Bob Davenport.

Davenport said he anticipates one of his team's first priorities will be to set up crime-free multihousing programs in the city.

Deputies will work with apartment managers and business owners to teach them how to better crime-proof their properties.

Like Temecula's team, Murrieta's will be expected to jump on a problem as soon as it develops, whether it's a string of vehicle burglaries, vandalism or drugs.

"We can focus on a problem to get it resolved," Davenport said. "We'll be the hub of information on what's going on in the city." Informants are key
The use of informants is a key part of the job, said Deputy Michelle Larson, half of Temecula's S.E.T. Most days typically begin with calls to informants culling for information. Who's selling? Who's buying? Where?

On lucky days, informants will call with a juicy tip. Recently the team received a tip that a group of students at Temecula Valley High School had left for school under the influence of drugs.

When they got to the school, the students displayed the telltale signs: fluttering eyelids, nervousness, dry mouth, dilated pupils.

"It's important to build a rapport with people," Larson said.

This way, they'll feel comfortable coming forward with information. Some informants can get the jitters, and get worried about being labeled "rats," she said.

At the same time, the team has to be careful it doesn't become too familiar to people in the community. "We want to meld in. We want to go to different places and not be seen immediately as law enforcement."

Rile said the existence of S.E.T. in the two cities should only improve the exchange of information.

"There's no border. Murrieta's problems are Temecula's and vice-versa," he said. "We accomplish more by working with them and they can help us."

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