Compton's Legal Muscle Fights Drug Trade at Housing Project

Times Staff Writer

At first glance, the New Wilmington Arms Apartments looks pretty much like any other housing project.

A series of brown stucco buildings stand cool and impervious at the corner of Wilmington Avenue and Laurel Street next to a dusty construction site. Damp loads of noonday wash flap from balcony rails in the hot summer breeze. And nearby, a pair of gardeners methodically mow the lawn amid the monotonous drone of gas-powered tools.

Only the presence of armed security guards tells a different story.

As recently as two months ago, residents say, dozens of shady characters milled about the development's locked gate selling and buying cocaine and other illegal drugs. A few lived at Wilmington Arms. Most were outsiders drawn by the illicit trade, occasionally taking refuge with friends or casual acquaintances within the secured complex.

"I stopped coming out after dark," said Robert Williams, 18, who has lived here for two years. Walking down the main street of the complex to visit friends, he said, he was often accosted by outsiders looking for drugs. One even threatened him with a gun. "I thought that was it," Williams said. "I was afraid."

No Longer Feels Unsafe

Today the situation has changed, according to police. Williams says he no longer feels unsafe outside his apartment. Other residents say the atmosphere has improved. And though security guards still witness an occasional illegal transaction outside the gates, the volume of such activities, they say, has dramatically decreased.

City Atty. Wesley Fenderson credits a new and unusual city ordinance that he says has spurred, at least in this case, a level of cooperation between city officials and property owners unprecedented in Compton. "Hopefully, this will become a model," said Fenderson of what has happened at Wilmington Arms.

The ordinance, passed May 28, allows the council to declare any site at which illegal drugs are used or sold a "public nuisance." Once the property is declared a nuisance, the ordinance gives the council the right to take whatever action is deemed necessary--including confiscation and destruction of the property--to abate the nuisance.

In the case of Wilmington Arms, the city suspended its move to declare the complex a public nuisance when its owners took strong action to help police stem the drug traffic.

Fenderson said the law, along with anti-loitering legislation passed at the same time, is indicative of the city's new, aggressive stance combatting what he described as a serious drug problem in Compton.

Compton Police Chief Gilbert Sandoval said he welcomed the new law as a vehicle to foster what he called "a task force" approach in combatting drug use in Compton and elsewhere. "It's a very serious problem nationwide," he said. "We need to approach it on a task force basis" utilizing the cooperation of all concerned.

Unheard-Of Tactic

Kate Sproul, a staff attorney with the California League of Cities whose job includes keeping abreast of municipal legislative trends throughout the state, said she had never heard of a California city using such a tactic to combat drug use.

Wilmington Arms--a 164-unit development providing federally subsidized housing to some 1,000 low-income families --was to have been the first test of the Compton law. Fenderson said it was chosen because a computer profile revealed 63 drug-related arrests in or adjacent to the apartment complex during the previous 12 months. That record, he said, was unsurpassed elsewhere in Compton.

Early in June, the city began building a case against the complex by, among other things, directing police to begin surreptitiously videotaping drug transactions on the premises.

Sherman Gardner, president of Goldrich and Kest Industries of Culver City, which has owned and managed Wilmington Arms since 1978, said he had taken steps to solve the problem even before the city got involved. His measures, he said, included removing carports (to eliminate potential hiding places for drug criminals), increasing security lighting, improving the security guard service and implementing monthly meetings between the residents and the guards.

According to Fenderson, however, the most dramatic improvements took place after the city began its surveillance.

Loitering Discouraged

Those changes occurred on a number of fronts. The city, responding to Gardner's request, has red-lined the curbs and erected no-parking signs outside the complex entrance in an effort to eliminate loitering.

Goldrich and Kest has hired a new on-site manager experienced in dealing with drug problems, instituted weekly meetings between management and representatives of the Compton Police Department, evicted a number of tenants suspected of having drug connections, tightened procedures designed to screen new tenants and aggressively enforced the new anti-loitering ordinance.

At a July 2 hearing on whether the site should be declared a public nuisance, Gardner went a step further by offering to put up $15,000, which Fenderson says will be used to help pay for a special police task force to increase area patrols.

The results have been dramatic, according to observers. In the last month, some 30 people--80% more than usual--have been arrested at the site, mostly for loitering. Eventually, security personnel said, that number should dwindle. And, said Fenderson, where a regular cadre of 20 to 30 drug pushers once operated, now only a handful remain.

"I don't think we've eradicated the problem, but I'm certainly happy with the cooperation we're getting from the management," Sandoval said.

Added Fenderson: "It's very rare that you get this kind of cooperation. We're very pleased."

City Withholds Action

The City Council was so impressed by the company's efforts that it voted to delay action on the nuisance declaration until Aug. 6. And if the progress continues, Fenderson said, the city will most likely back down on its threat to declare the complex a nuisance.

"We're not out to put people out of business," he said. "We're basically out to abate the nuisance."

Gardner has mixed feelings about how it all seems to be turning out. Although glad that the drug problem apparently has decreased, he believes that the same end could have been achieved with less legal intimidation. "There needs to be more communication before someone is labeled a public nuisance," he said.

And although he admits that drug trafficking has occurred at Wilmington Arms, he believes the problem is not an isolated one but part of a larger situation affecting the whole city and requiring a joint solution. "There needs to be partnership," he said. "I commend the city for its efforts, but I wish we had had more of an opportunity to sit down before the fire became so intense."

Fenderson said he plans to move against another undisclosed target within a few weeks, utilizing the same ordinance. "I'm sure not everyone will be as cooperative," he said.

And life at Wilmington Arms seems to be settling into something resembling a normal routine, minus the hordes of illegal dealers who previously gathered at its gates.

"I love this place," said Leroy Eason, 33, relaxing under a shade tree on what residents call "the boulevard"--the main street traversing the complex. For 12 years, Eason, who said he is unemployed and on welfare, has lived here with his wife and three children. If Wilmington Arms were forced to close, he said, he and his family would be homeless. "I'll do whatever is necessary to keep a roof over my kids' heads," said Eason. "There's no way I want them to close this place because of those guys out on the street."

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