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Leading a squad to stop drugs

Published Oct. 11, 2005

John Garcia had the same childhood dream many children have. He wanted to grow up and become a policeman.

And he did.

Today, as commander of the Tampa Police Department's QUAD (Quick Uniform Attack on Drugs) squad, the Tampa native has a tougher goal.

He wants to rid the city of drug dealers.

"There wasn't a drug problem in Tampa when I was growing up," said Garcia, who is 42. "I would like to see the city that way again, so my kids can have the same kind of memories I have."

But Garcia knows his dream is unrealistic.

"The drug business is derived from greed," he said. "It's an easy way to make money, and some people would rather sell drugs than get an honest job."

Garcia figures if he can't eradicate the problem, he can at least make it uncomfortable for drug dealers.

That's what he's been trying to do since he was promoted to lieutenant in November and put in charge of the QUAD squad.

The QUAD squad was formed in 1989 at the request of Mayor Sandy Freedman to fight the city's drug problem full time. Police realized they could clean up an area, but once the officers left, the dealers would return.

So the department assigned 41 officers full time to a permanent drug-fighting squad. Tampa was divided into four "quads" with a 10-member team working each section.

"Making a difference'

QUAD was one of three community programs that helped Tampa win the All-American City Award from the National Civic League in 1990. But the program also came under fire that year when some residents complained that officers violated their constitutional rights while searching suspects' apartments.

Garcia said those claims are unfounded. "We rarely have a complaint of excessive force. Actions like that will not be tolerated by this unit."

In fact, Garcia said he has led training sessions about illegal search and seizure and excessive force. "Neither of those issues are a problem with the squad," he said.

When QUAD was formed in 1989, Garcia was a sergeant with the department's street anti-crime squad. Because of his narcotics training, Garcia helped train the QUAD officers. He spent time in other areas of the police department, including the vice, robbery and sex-crime units, and then returned to QUAD in November.

He's glad to be back at QUAD, and pleased with its results.

"When the squad formed in 1989, there were 140 drug dens in Tampa. Now there are only 12 or 13," Garcia said. "We're making a difference."

That difference could be seen on a recent weekend when Garcia and his men were arranging phony drug buys.

Squad members took their places as an undercover officer bought a $20 bag of crack from a neighborhood dealer. Keeping in touch by radio, the officers alerted everyone that the suspect had started to run.

Unmarked cars skidded around corners, cordoning off a two-block area where the suspect was last seen. Officers were running through back yards and hurdling toys as they chased the suspect, whom they eventually caught.

"I knew he was going to run," Garcia said. "He got that look on his face and started to get those "happy feet.'

"

He said a lot of suspects start doing a little dance and fidgeting before they get ready to run.

"I don't know where they think they are going to go," Garcia said. "If we don't get them today, we'll get them tomorrow. It's inevitable."

"Knows his stuff'

Garcia says he thinks he has had an effect on Tampa's drug-plagued neighborhoods.

He's not alone.

Ross Calleja, an Ybor City resident, met Garcia when he was a sergeant with the QUAD.

"I had some rental property where all the drug dealers would hang out," Calleja said. "I called John, and he came out and told me he'd take care of it."

"He stationed one of his men on my property, and within a week they had arrested all the dealers," Calleja said. "They all went to jail. I haven't seen them back. If I do, I'll just call Garcia."

Sulphur Springs is another area the QUAD squad patrols.

Residents there credit the squad and Garcia for the drop in crime in the area.

"John really knows his stuff," said Linda Hope, president of the Sulphur Springs Action League. "With all his years of experience in dealing with narcotics, he knows how these people think. That's how he knows where they'll be and how to catch them."

Garcia's experience has come in handy with some of Tampa's craftier criminals. He came up with one technique while working undercover with the street anti-crime unit.

He noticed that many of the suspects would hold pieces of rock cocaine in their hands but would drop them at the first sign of trouble.

Though the suspect no longer was holding the cocaine, it was still "on him," in a sense. He taught fellow officers to use a cotton swab with a solution that turns blue when it touches cocaine residue.

"He told us there was always a way to catch the guy, you just had to find out how," said Dwight Buchanan, an officer with the Ybor City squad.

Garcia still believes that.

"They are always going to be coming up with new ways to sell the stuff," Garcia said. "So, we're going to have to keep coming up with ways to stop them."