L.A. County Sheriff's gang crackdown, community policing efforts paying off
By Christina Hoag
COMPTON, Calif. — Violence has long been part of life in this city on the gritty south side of Los Angeles. In the birthplace of gangsta rap, nightfall once brought gunfire, and wearing the wrong color could get you killed.
Gang activity is still a fixture in Compton's 10.5 square miles, but the gunfire is no longer as frequent, the drug dealers are not as prevalent and some residents even boast of a comeback.
"I remember a time when you could buy dope on the next corner all day long. At 5 p.m., the shootings would start," said community activist Royce Ester. "It's nothing like it used to be back then."
The notoriously high murder rate once propelled Compton to No. 1 on a list of the nation's 20 most dangerous cities. But that rate has now been slashed by more than half — from 65 killings in 2005 to 28 in 2008, the lowest since 1985.
Millions of dollars have been spent on townhome developments and new shopping centers with national chain stores, and residents are reclaiming neighborhoods from gangs.
To be sure, Compton is still beset with urban ills.
About 28 percent of the 100,000 residents are poor. Robberies and burglaries are rising. Prostitutes brazenly strut along a thoroughfare, and streets are still menaced by no fewer than 65 gangs that have some 10,000 members.
"We're making a lot of progress, but we've got a long way to go," said Capt. William Ryan, who heads the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department station in Compton.
The plummeting homicide rate shows that the strategy of combining a gang crackdown with community outreach is paying off, Ryan said. But he acknowledged that violent crime is down nationally, and Compton is still an "active" assignment in police parlance.
Two decades ago, progress wasn't even in sight. The Bloods, Crips and Latino gangs warred over a galloping crack cocaine trade.
Homegrown rappers started glorifying Compton's underworld. One group was called Compton's Most Wanted. Another scored a hit with "Straight Outta Compton." Rapper Eazy-E sang "It's a Compton Thang."
The music caught on as "gangsta rap," and the city was popularized as gang central.
Through the 1990s, the city struggled with other problems. The state took over the school district, citing lousy academics and a $20 million budget hole. Flamboyant Mayor Omar Bradley, who was fond of gangsta glamour, was convicted of corruption. The City Council disbanded the police force, blaming high crime on ineffective policing.
The new decade has seen schools returned to local control, the election of a prosecutor as mayor, and public safety provided by the sheriff's department.
A hard line on crime has been key to the improvements. A sheriff's task force targets the four toughest gangs. That strategy goes hand-in-hand with neighborhood crime watches, patrols to protect kids walking to and from school, and a weapon-exchange program that has encouraged residents to turn in some 1,200 firearms for $100 supermarket cards.
Deputies also direct science and mentoring programs, as well as an after-school center offering boxing, dance, homework help and field trips.
"These are kids who have never been to the beach," Ryan said. (The shore is less than 10 miles away.)
Resident Leon Harper, who lost a 19-year-old son in a gang shootout, said he's noticed the difference. He no longer has gang members as neighbors or hears gunfire at night. "It's a lot quieter," he said.
A wave of investment has flowed in. Three townhome developments have gone up in the last few years with $250,000 units.
The $80 million Gateway Towne Center opened in 2007, with Home Depot, Target, Best Buy and other retailers reviving a 50-acre eyesore last occupied by auto dealerships 30 years ago.
The arrival of the center brought some 3,000 jobs and showed confidence in the type of urban community typically eschewed by big business.
Target's ribbon-cutting featured a high school band, a choir, pastors giving blessings and store managers wearing tuxedos.
The latest addition was TGI Friday's restaurant, which has been packed since opening in December.
"There are certainly some neighborhoods that can be tough, but the reality is not what the reputation is," said Smokey Hughes, senior vice president at parent Briad Restaurant Group.
Still, the gang presence is unabashed in some areas. On a recent day, a group of young men who identified themselves as Crips gathered on Acacia Street wearing knee-length T-shirts. Some held leashed pitbulls.
When a sheriff's vehicle approached, someone whistled and most of the group scattered. "That's the signal we're here," said Sgt. Rick Mejia.
But citizens are making their own stand against gangs. In November, several hundred people bearing placards reading "No more violence" marched to a park that had become a gang hangout and began holding vigils for young crime victims.
Gang members had gone when the throng arrived, and they have not returned. Now kids play there and parents sit on benches, said Pablo Arroyo, president of Parents United in the Struggle for a New Compton.
"People are frightened by what's happening," Arroyo said. "We want to say, 'Enough already'."
In the 1960s, Compton's primarily white population fled after riots in adjacent Watts, and the city became mostly black. In the 1990s, crime drove many black residents to nearby cities. Latinos and other immigrant groups such as Samoans moved in. The city is now 60 percent Latino.
The city has hired public relations firms to enhance its image, but such improvement is going to be a challenge until crime really subsides, said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles. He suggested enlisting some famed native sons, such as Detroit Piston Arron Affalo, to promote the city.
However, a slaying in 2003 underscored how hard that task could be: A half-sister of tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams was killed in a gang shooting.
"That image of crime is very difficult to overcome," Guerra said.