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Calmer times in a city plagued by guns

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies used to brace for trouble each time they pulled into a cluster of apartment buildings on South Grandee Avenue near the Compton airport. It’s a cul-de-sac where they could be easily cornered by gang members

But on a recent Friday night, deputies Jose Sandoval and Larry Waldie spotted only a few teenage girls who didn’t appear to be causing trouble. There were no gang members in sight.

Gang violence has plummeted in Compton in the nearly two years since Sheriff Lee Baca assigned a team of deputies and detectives to turn back a menacing tide of crime as part of the department’s contract to patrol the mid-county city. With 29 homicides to date, the city is on pace to have the lowest number of killings in more than two decades.

“Six months ago when we’d go in there, it was wall-to-wall knuckleheads,” said Lt. Paul Pietrantoni, who supervises the Compton antigang task force. “Now they’re all in prison.”

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Baca’s decision to beef up the Compton policing effort was unusual. As a city that contracts for sheriff’s services, Compton gets only as many deputies as city officials are willing to pay for. And they couldn’t afford the cost -- which would have run millions of dollars a year -- that would have accompanied the 28 sworn personnel Baca sent to the city. So the sheriff decided not to charge for the additional resources, pulling deputies out of other assignments within the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.

At the time, gang violence in Compton was rampant, with 65 homicides in 2005. Baca said he viewed the violence as “an emerging social disaster.”

“It’s our responsibility to not let any part of the county deteriorate,” Baca said. “I see this as a social responsibility.”

In 2006, the task force’s first year, murders fell to 39. The task force sends deputies, Sandoval and Waldie among them, onto the streets to look for gang members and guns, while different deputies handle other calls for service. They confront suspected gang members and search them and their homes for guns.

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“Marijuana ain’t killing anybody right now. I’ll get the drugs when the streets are so clean the mothers start complaining about the kids coming home with grass in their pockets, not bullets in their bodies,” Pietrantoni said. “We’re after guns because guns kill people, and we’re after gangsters because we’re out to lower the murder rate.”

This year, sheriff’s officials and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shut down a Compton gun store that had sold nearly 900 weapons that ended up being confiscated during criminal investigations. Store employees had illegally helped criminals buy guns by encouraging them to use friends or family with clean records to pass background checks. Thousands of guns were seized during the raid.

Getting guns out of the hands of gang members is a much more time-consuming effort. Deputies Sandoval and Waldie recently spent a shift trying to identify gang members and searching them and their cars. Those on probation or parole can be searched for any reason. In other cases, they’d cite evidence of criminal activity: gang tattoos, the odor of marijuana. Between 7 p.m. and midnight, the deputies stopped about half a dozen cars and searched them for weapons. They looked under seats, in trunks and in glove compartments. They popped hoods and checked engines in search of hidden items.

“If there’s no gun in the car, if there’s no gun on them, onto the next one,” Waldie said.

In the last six weeks, Waldie and Sandoval have seized six handguns from suspected criminals. They didn’t find any that night. And they encountered only a couple of suspected gang members, each unarmed.

Their experience on the South Grandee cul-de-sac was repeated throughout the night. “We drove through neighborhoods tonight where before you’d see a lot of gang members hanging out. Now, it’s quiet,” Sandoval said. “It’s a lot different since they started the task force.”

Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin said he believes the sheriff’s crackdown “has been major for us.” And as the city celebrates the opening of big-box stores, including a Home Depot, Target and Best Buy, and its first Starbucks -- businesses that could generate additional tax revenue for crime-fighting -- the mayor wonders how long the sheriff will keep up the enforcement.

“I’m afraid as soon as they leave, it’s going to kick back up,” Perrodin said. “I analogize it to roaches. You turn the light on and they run. You turn it off and they come out of hiding.”

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Sheriff’s Capt. William M. Ryan, who supervises the Compton station, said a key element to reducing crime in the city of nearly 100,000 residents was to intervene with youth early. The department opened a youth center on Alameda Street at which youngsters can play sports, use a computer lab and get help with homework.

The department started a new program to encourage Compton elementary school children to study and enjoy science. Ryan meets with residents once a month for community coffees, most recently at the new Starbucks. (The department picked up the tab.)

“If we can work with the kids, say from 5, 6, 7 years old up to 16 or 17, and do everything we can to get them involved in a variety of programs and on the right track and away from gangs, it’s going to go a long way toward eliminating gangs in this community,” Ryan said.

Compton is a city still besieged by crime. Deputies received 55,000 calls for service last year. There are robberies and car thefts almost daily. Early into their recent shifts, deputies Sandoval and Waldie saw just how quickly the city could turn violent. It was 7:10 p.m. and the report of a “GSV,” or gunshot victim, sent them to the intersection of Dwight Avenue and 151st Street.

They arrived to find a man sprawled on his back, blood pooling beside his head. The deputies saw the man take his final breaths before Compton Fire Department paramedics pronounced him dead at 7:15 p.m.

Investigators believe gang members quarreled with the victim inside a nearby liquor store, then followed and shot him. Jhovanny Rodriguez-Ramirez was the city’s 29th murder victim of 2007.

Pietrantoni said there was still reason for hope.

“The community realizes what we’re doing. They in turn are giving us information they wouldn’t ordinarily give us,” he said. “When you can go to Compton and see ladies walking with water bottles in their hands, enjoying their community, you know we’ve come a long way.”

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stuart.pfiefer@latimes.com


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