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Sgt. Sean Engles with the Charleston Police Department talks on the phone with an officer as he patrols the East Side neighborhood in November 2019. The department is deploying officers on bicycles and encouraging others to walk the neighborhood during part of their shifts. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

The bad days were back. 

In downtown Charleston's historic East Side neighborhood, 2019 was a year marked by violent crime on the rise. Drug dealers were out in force, peddling narcotics in the open on street corners, near parks where children played and frightening residents who'd worked hard over the years to make their community a safer place to live.

Where drugs went, violence followed. 

Four people were shot dead between June and September, the neighborhood's highest homicide rate since 2010, when there were six killings. 

The struggle was nothing new. For several decades, the neighborhood had earned a reputation as an open-air drug market. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, gangs sold heroin, and crack and powder cocaine, flooding the streets with poison. 

Police would periodically flood the East Side with officers, conducting raids that swept up dozens of dealers. Drug activity and violence would subside for a few months before new dealers moved in and the cycle continued. 

Earlier this month, Charleston police wrapped up a months-long narcotics operation that rounded up 15 street-level dealers. Department officials say they hope to make more arrests, and that they have a strategy in place to ensure lasting improvements to the neighborhood. 

"In the past, we've done sweeps (and) we've put additional officers in the area," said Capt. Dustin Thompson, commander of the department's Office of Community Oriented Policing. "Obviously, it hasn't worked because we're doing another sweep. We've got plans for 2020. It's a multifaceted approach." 

A new approach

For Thompson and other police leaders, the recent drug sweep is the first step in a larger strategy. 

Officers are more deeply integrated into the communities they serve than before — a move city officials hope will pay off with lasting change.

"We had this first phase," Thompson said. "Phase two is not letting up. When this operation ended and we got the arrest warrants, we started a new investigation on the East Side for narcotics. In the past, we've done what we needed to do as far as locking these people up. With the East Side in particular, not that we haven't in the past, but we're hearing what the community wants. From the mayor down, we're committed to not letting this cycle continue." 

Among other changes, the department is deploying officers on bicycles and encouraging others to walk the neighborhood during part of their shifts.

By getting officers out of their vehicles, police leaders say officers can build deeper relationships with residents, become part of the fabric of the communities they serve and build trust that leads to more tips coming in about crimes and cases getting solved faster. 

All this, they hope, will make residents partners in driving dealers out of the East Side and keeping them away. 

The approach is already starting to yield results. 

At an East Side neighborhood meeting Wednesday, residents were eager to hear updates about the outcome of the drug sweep. Officers in attendance encouraged residents to continue coming forward with information that could help them with any criminal investigation and to continue reporting suspicious activity when they see it. 

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Capt. Jack Weiss, Lt. Andre Jenkins and police Chief Luther T. Reynolds walk along Hanover Street after a press conference Friday afternoon, Aug. 9, 2019, about the shooting Thursday in Charleston's East Side neighborhood around 7:40 p.m. near Columbus and Hanover Street. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

If residents continue to be active watchdogs for their community, dealers will likely consider leaving the area for good, the officers said. 

Residents also recently raised money to purchase hundreds of home security cameras they believe will send an important message to dealers and other criminals: You are not welcome here. You are being watched. You will be caught. 

Tim Weber, a resident who heads the neighborhood's new crime watch group, called the investigation and arrests promising and long overdue. 

Police have promised to make future investigations shorter in order to not allow dealers to gain a foothold in the community, Weber said.  

"The neighborhood has changed," he said. "My opinion is that there is strength in numbers. If you're silent, you're contributing to criminal activity. We're continuing to do unity events. We're continuing to try to communicate with our neighbors. There is definitely a noticeable difference."

Monique Jackson, a neighborhood resident who works with youth, also said the recent drug sweep has made a big difference in the neighborhood, but she hopes that the police department will maintain a strong presence in the community. 

"If they see that consistency, they'll stop coming," Jackson said. "The dealers know how it is. They see the sweep and they'll go away for a couple months, then it'll go right back to the way it was."

Despite her worries, she said she's thankful for the work being done to address crime in her community. 

"I know a lot of the residents are feeling good about what the police are doing right now," Jackson said. "It's not the people living on the East Side that's looking for drugs. It's people coming from outside."

A decades-long fight

The recent arrests are not the first time Charleston police have rounded up drug dealers on the East Side. 

In May 2001, more than 100 federal agents and police descended on the community and arrested 43 accused drug dealers in an effort to disrupt heroin sales in the neighborhood. Dubbed Operation Mayday, that sweep saw heavily armed officers move in like an occupying army as they rounded up suspects in the neighborhood and elsewhere in the city. 

It was one of the largest drug raids in city history. 

In July 2002, police capped a three-month investigation with Operation Broken Needle, which nabbed 32 suspects accused of dealing heroin on the East Side. 

Operation Mayday had dismantled a thriving heroin distribution network, but independent dealers moved in during the months that passed in an attempt to fill the vacuum, police said at the time. 

Operation Fresh Start launched in March 2004 and resulted in 23 drug-related arrests. 

Several other raids followed over the years. Police arrested 20 suspects after a months-long drug investigation in 2006 on the East Side. The following year, officers arrested 20 suspects and a person they identified as a key, high-level heroin dealer. 

In 2007, police arrested 15 people after a narcotics investigation in the neighborhood, and in 2010 they arrested at least 15 more during a similar sweep.

By 2014, the Holy City was in the thrall of the nationwide opioid epidemic as authorities began to take note of younger people getting hooked on prescription medications before turning to the cheap, abundant heroin that was still flooding Charleston's streets. 

 In 2017, Charleston police conducted their last large-scale narcotics operation on the East Side, netting 19 arrests.

But, after each sweep, new criminals came in to fill the void and feed demand for drugs. 

Breaking the cycle

Charleston police say they're committed to breaking that cycle and that they have the tools to make that happen.

"I don't want to go in there, lock all these people up, everything goes down and everything’s good for six months and all of a sudden the cycle starts again," Thompson said. "Then the same issues that've been happening for 20 years happen again. That’s what I’m committed to. My goal is to have zero crime."

Lt. Andre Jenkins, who commands the officers who patrol the East Side and other neighborhoods in the northern half of the Charleston peninsula, said he and his officers are looking to get the worst of the worst off the streets and that many of the suspects arrested during the recent drug sweep are repeat offenders. 

"What we've done is added more officers to the neighborhood," Jenkins said. "Members of the (Community Action Team) are in the community talking with folks and kids. We want residents, if they see people coming back and they're seeing the same type of problems, to reach out."

Having additional resources in the area along with participation from the community will be key. 

"We hope they get the picture and decide to not come back," Jenkins said. "We want them to no longer think of the East Side as an open-air drug market."

Mikaela Porter contributed to this report. 

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.