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Deadly Straits for Compton Residents

Times Staff Writer

Five years ago, when Compton leaders asked Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to take over policing their city, sheriff’s officials looked at its crime levels, population and size and said 100 patrol deputies at a cost of about $16 million would be needed to do the job. Instead, city officials contracted for 70 deputies to patrol the streets at a $12-million price tag, saying that was all they could afford.

Now, with the murder rate rising rapidly, some in this crime-plagued city say a shortage of deputies is a big part of the problem. Local sheriff’s officials report 42 homicides inside the city’s boundaries this year -- two last weekend -- and say an additional four killings recorded by the sheriff’s Homicide Division at Compton addresses are actually near the city lines in unincorporated areas.

At the current rate, Compton could have twice as many homicides this year than last. The rate of killings in the city, which has about 96,000 residents, would far outpace other cities that have recently led the nation in homicides.

Baca, who was involved in the initial contract negotiations, said his department had to abandon its opening proposal for policing Compton because “they couldn’t afford it.” He said he agreed to the lower level of service because “my belief was that the city was at a breaking point.”

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“They needed help,” Baca said in an interview last week after a meeting with residents of Compton and nearby unincorporated areas. “For me to turn my back would be abdicating my duties as chief law enforcement officer for the county.”

The 100-deputy proposal, he said, did not represent a bare minimum but what sheriff’s officials determined would offer a good level of service. Baca said he believed that the slightly more than 70 deputies now deployed to Compton was workable, if not ideal. “We have to be smarter, more efficient, arrest the right people,” he said.

Given the rise in killings and fewer than a dozen arrests made in homicide cases this year, the relatively low number of deputies assigned to patrol Compton has become an issue in the city. By comparison, the Los Angeles Police Department’s nearby Southeast Division, which serves about 150,000 residents in an area the same size as Compton, deploys 258 patrol officers working two to a car. Nearly all Compton deputies patrol alone.

The relatively sparse level of patrol in the city with the highest homicide rate in the county also highlights the way that sheriff’s deputies are deployed: mostly based on how much cities are willing or able to pay.

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Unlike the LAPD, which has been able -- at least to some degree -- to shift officers to high-crime regions despite political pressures, the Sheriff’s Department is much more compartmentalized. Forty-one cities contract for services, and each receives patrol levels based on the number of hours and types of special needs it pays for.

According to the sheriff’s contract division, the full price of adding one deputy in a standard 56-hour patrol car -- including the cost of liability, vacation relief, supervisors and support staff -- is $278,119 per year. The sheriff’s overtime rate is $59.47 per hour, which also covers liability.

Unless Compton can come up with more money to add personnel -- or can get fast assistance from the federal or state government -- increasing patrols may be difficult, sheriff’s officials concede. Baca, in fact, has been criticized by some county officials for providing more service to some contract cities than they have purchased.

The department’s one area of flexibility involves specialized units, including gang suppression, which are deployed countywide and can be shifted from one place to another. So far, the department has shifted three gang suppression officers to Compton, bringing the total to eight.

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In addition to questioning the number of deputies, some Compton residents have asked if deputies are sufficiently connected to the community to police it effectively.

Capt. Eric Hamilton, who heads the sheriff’s station in Compton, defends his force.

“Do we have a 100-year history with the community? No, we don’t have that long history; we’ve been here for five years,” he said. “Do the majority of our folks live in the community? No.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t care about this community or we don’t have a connection to the community. We don’t care who you are or what you look like or what we look like, we’re going to come out here and provide service.”

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Indeed, in the first four years on the job in Compton, sheriff’s officials oversaw a drop in crime -- with 39 homicides recorded last year, the lowest number in decades. But this year’s uptick in homicides has deeply disturbed many in the city.

The effect of rising levels of violence on residents was highlighted by a recent door-to-door survey performed by deputies: Of 345 residents interviewed, 189 said they felt “unsafe” or “very unsafe,” and 78 said they felt only “somewhat safe” walking in their neighborhood at night. The top three issues cited by those surveyed were gangs, violent crime and graffiti.

The increase in crime has also picked at old wounds from the political fight over disbanding Compton’s police force.

When Compton dissolved its force, the Police Department had a budget of about $20 million and about 113 officers, detectives and command staff. It was authorized to grow to 150.

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Some city leaders -- most notably then-Mayor Omar Bradley -- argued that the city’s force did a poor job of crime fighting at a big cost. In making the case to get rid of the department, Bradley told residents that the sheriff could do more for less money.

Former Compton police officials say Bradley had personal reasons for wanting to dismantle the department, which had emerged as the source of much criticism of his scandal-plagued administration. (Bradley was convicted last year on felony corruption charges and sentenced to three years in prison. He is free on bail while the case is being appealed.)

At the time, the battle over the police force provoked lawsuits and screaming matches at City Hall. At one council meeting, Bradley lunged at his chief opponent, Eric Perrodin, who is now the city’s mayor but then was a deputy district attorney and former Compton gang suppression officer.

Perrodin has appealed to residents to come to a community meeting tonight to discuss what can be done about the killings. City leaders recently proposed a number of measures -- including posting rewards for information and the possible imposition of gang injunctions -- to keep the homicide rate from approaching years of record violence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

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Sheriff’s Capt. Hamilton said he would continue to ask for more resources and appeal for assistance from the community in solving the killings.

“It’s about us and when do we say, ‘Enough is enough?’ ” Hamilton told the crowd gathered last week at the meeting in the park where famous Compton expatriates Venus and Serena Williams learned to play tennis on the public courts. “Is it 44? Is it 45? When is it?”


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