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West Humboldt is one of America's biggest open-air drug markets. What does that mean for its residents?


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Tims knows he was lucky—he was never seriously hurt and never caught a serious case. And even though the money was good, he says he just grew weary of dealing. "At some point I was blessed to have the mind to step outside the box and see what was going on," he says.

His break came in the form of a job at Subway. Even though he was making a fraction of what he had as a dealer, Tims says it changed his life—he didn't have to worry about being robbed, shot, or arrested, and it deeply impressed his parents. "That encouraged me, seeing how proud people could be of a man who worked hard."

Three years ago he got a job working with kids, many from homes like his own. "I sometimes ask myself, is it even possible to get inside the minds of the next generation? So many, they're at a loss for hope—they don't see much beyond what they actually see."

The vast majority of the violence that breaks out isn't the result of territory, gang disputes, or even money, he says. "There's too many people under stress, and with that stress people seem to lose it. Their minds are going in so many different directions they just lose it. And I was at that point before, where I felt I had nothing to lose and everything I had was going down the drain."

The view from the squad car

Superintendent McCarthy's current strategy on the west side focuses on increasing police presence in designated "violence zones," where shootings have been common, and "narcotics spots," the corners police are intent on holding in the "ground war."

Many cops in the 11th police district privately have little faith that it's going to help long-term. "The superintendent is pursuing this scarecrow strategy," says one veteran. "You're really doing nothing but pushing it to another corner a block or two away."

The cops assigned to the corners and the violence zones aren't available to respond to any other calls. "So they're doing nothing except sitting there and looking pretty, and the other cars are just running from job to job. And a lot of these calls are just sitting on the back burner."

I had a brief glimpse of what beat officers are up against when the police department let me ride along in the squad car with five-year veterans Fred Pacheco and Rick Martinez as they patrolled 1121 last week.

We hadn't left the district station at the start of their shift before two calls came in reporting narcotics sales in two separate spots. Neither officer was surprised that both were empty by the time we got there. "See, they must've moved on already," said Pacheco.

Many dealers are thought to listen closely to police radio, and warnings are also issued via phones, texts, hand signals, and, of course, shouts of "5-0!" But Pacheco and Martinez didn't have time to mull the possibilities. Nor did they have time to do much in the way of preventive or proactive policing. The next call was already in—a report of shots fired on the 900 block of North Homan (Annlouise Bishop's block, in fact).

Another squad car beat ours to the site of the reported shooting. We pulled up next to it and the officer rolled down his window. "I've been sitting over here," he said. "It's bullshit."

The block was quiet and empty except for five people on a porch several doors up the street. As we rolled slowly past, collecting glares, a small boy jumped up and shouted after us: "Vice Lord nation!"

"Geez," said Martinez. "What was he, five?"

Martinez told me that it's not uncommon for reported shootings to end up being nothing. Sometimes the calls are from residents who want to get them over there faster, other times from dealers creating a decoy. "But you've got to go, because you never know."

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