Richard Winton and Hector Becerra, Times Staff Writers
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
Twenty-two people had been killed in Compton as of this time last year, when the city was in the midst of a yearlong wave of gang violence. So far this year, the city has recorded three homicides.
The difference? Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has quietly doubled the number of deputies, detectives and other personnel assigned to Compton in what officials and residents see as all-out attention to reducing violence.
It is not clear how long the intensified deployment will last.
"Will resources eventually be removed from Compton? Yes, they will. But I am not going to advertise it to gang members," said Sheriff's Capt. Mike Ford.
Compton pays the county about $14 million a year for about 78 deputies, having disbanded its own force in 2000. The Sheriff's Department is footing the bill for the current expansion, with manpower coming from stations elsewhere in the county.
Some in Compton worry that crime will rise again when the police presence recedes.
"I just hope it lasts. I don't want to see an upturn the minute the extra deputies leave," said Mayor Eric Perrodin. "I used to be a gang cop here. And gangsters know to go underground until the deputies are gone."
Baca is up for reelection in June and for now, even his strongest detractors agree the heavy police presence is yielding big results in a city that saw 72 homicides last year, the most in nearly a decade. In addition to the drop in homicides, gang-related weapon assaults are down about 50% from last year.
Residents said they have noticed major differences since Baca's enhanced policing campaign began, both in the number of Sheriff's Department cruisers on the street and in the resulting decline in anxiety about crime.
"When the sheriff came, that's when you really started noticing more of a difference," said Alex Gonzalez, 18, who spent Tuesday morning replacing the engine of a friend's car in his frontyard on Elm Street. "Ever since they started cracking down on everything, things got better."
A year ago, Gonzalez said, he would not have lingered outside, doing something as routine as repairing a car. At that time, there had been several homicides nearby, gunshots rang out at night and gang members loitered outside.
"Everything's been fine. That's why I don't have any problems working outside, like before," he said. "A lot of gangsters used to be walking up and down the street, up and down, up and down. You don't see that anymore. What you see now is what it is now. It's quiet."
Compton, with a population of about 96,000, has long been plagued by gangs and violence, problems immortalized in gangsta rap. But so far this year, Compton's homicide numbers are in line with those in communities with far greater reputations for safety. Compton has recorded one more homicide than Pasadena, which has a population of 141,000. Inglewood, another city with gang problems, has recorded nine homicides.
Baca was at a law enforcement conference in Israel and could not be reached for comment. But Undersheriff Larry Waldie said the sheriff wanted to make an undeniable show of force in Compton.
"It is remarkable what we have been able to do in Compton in such a short time. It shows you what can be done with the right number of deputies," Waldie said.
Although it's likely some of the deputies will eventually be pulled out of the city, he added: "We are not going away.... We are not going to let Compton go back to the outrageous numbers of killings that occurred there last year."
Authorities said their efforts in Compton went beyond simply having more deputies on the streets. Compton station Capt. Eric Hamilton said gang investigators have been tracking specific gangs -- and in some cases certain gang leaders -- as well as targeting gun suppliers.
Hamilton said his detectives have also been trying to form stronger bonds with residents, in hopes they would lead to better cooperation among witnesses of crimes.
The city's third slaying of the year occurred last Saturday when a young man was shot during a rave party. Detectives made an arrest in the case within an hour and credited intelligence they received from witnesses and gang informants.
The Sheriff's Department deployment comes as the community group Amer-I-Can is making a new push to work with the city's more than 30 gangs to quell the violence. But Perrodin and others said it is obvious that crime has dropped because of the seemingly ever-present patrol cars and green-uniformed deputies now in force in the community.
"There's a lot more cops out there now," said Frederick Matthews, 43, as he prepared to shop at a Food 4 Less supermarket on Rosecrans Avenue. "Before ... it seemed like nobody was out there patrolling. The sheriff's all around now."
Perrodin, who has been joined by other city leaders in urging Baca to do more in Compton, said he doubts the extra deputies will stay. The department is struggling to recruit new deputies and is also dealing with a shortage of deputies in its jails.
"It is just matter of time before county supervisors want them in other areas," he said.
Perrodin said he and other city leaders want to place a public safety assessment of about $100 on the average home to pay for adding 20 or 30 deputies to the force as a longer-term solution.
The extra staffing is supplementing the regular Sheriff's Department detail of daytime gang detectives with a nightside team of detectives and a gang suppression unit. In addition, a community impact team of deputies is also concentrating on known gang areas.
Since Jan. 15, the gang investigators have seized 129 guns, made 330 felony arrests and served 36 major search warrants, Ford said.
Some community activists say they believe a major reason for the drop in crime is that residents are fed up and are cooperating with authorities more. They also credit efforts by community groups to bring gangs together.
"It is the community deciding to try to turn a page," said Omar A. Hakeem of Project Cry No More, which seeks to counter the attraction of gangs through education and sports. "The grass-roots activists are unified in trying to bring peace to our streets."
But another critic of the Sheriff's Department said there is no doubt the extra deputies are having a major impact.
"If they keep this up, we're going to have to honor them instead of going after them all the time. We're going to give them a plaque," said Royce Esters, president of the civil rights group National Assn. For Equal Justice in America.
As he stood behind thick, bulletproof glass at Jerry's liquor store on Rosecrans Avenue near Willowbrook Avenue, Juan Padilla, 20, said Tuesday he has detected a clear reduction in crime, adding that there is still too much. Just last week, he said, a friend of his was shot in the foot.
One way he measures the greater police presence is in how often he and his friends are stopped by deputies.
"My friend lost two cars already. He got two cars impounded in the first two months of this year," Padilla said. "I got stopped and got searched. There's a lot more cops out in the streets."
Deputies slash Compton, Calif., crime