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Compton residents feel under siege from Sheriff’s Department and are demanding reforms

Compton Mayor Aja Brown and others are demanding changes in the way the city is policed.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Compton Mayor Aja Brown shared a story about an encounter last year with Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies — one that she said was not unique among residents of her city.

After she was pulled over for allegedly failing to “stop at the limit line” at a red light, she said, deputies swarmed her car within seconds and searched Brown and her husband for drugs as their infant daughter sat in the back seat.

The mayor is among many there who have spoken out in recent months to demand changes in the way Compton is policed. The debate comes at a pivotal moment for both the city, which is rebounding after decades of violence and economic decline, and the Sheriff’s Department, which is under growing scrutiny over how it patrols predominately nonwhite communities such as Compton.

“Everyone deserves justice, especially when it comes to … law enforcement that taxpayer dollars are paying for,” Brown said. “We deserve some accountability.”

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More than two decades ago, the department took over enforcement duties from a city police agency that had struggled to deal with a surge in killings. Initially, the sheriff won praise in some parts of Compton as homicides declined. It was a major achievement in a city that in the 1980s and 1990s had become synonymous with gang violence.

But in recent years, many residents have complained of feeling under siege by the people who are supposed to protect them.

The department’s Compton station has been the site of ongoing and sometimes violent protests after several deputy-involved killings — and become a focus of allegations of deputy gangs accused of serious misconduct. In the backdrop is a nationwide movement to force a reckoning over racial justice issues and hold law enforcement more accountable.

William Kemp stands on the steps of Compton City Hall.
Compton native William Kemp called for a ballot initiative to give residents greater control over policing.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva moves to fire or suspend 26 employees over a 2018 fight associated with the Banditos clique.

Although Brown and other officials have backed away from suggestions that the city may cut ties with the Sheriff’s Department, they recently underscored their concerns, requesting that the offices of the U.S. attorney and state attorney general investigate allegations of a “pattern and practice of pervasive federal civil rights violations.”

“We believe several deputies within Compton Station have a history of violence against Black and Latino men and women … [and] urge your office to open an investigation immediately into all potential civil rights abuses,” Compton City Atty. Damon Brown wrote.

The Sheriff’s Department did not return calls seeking comment.

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William Kemp walks past the sheriff's station in Compton.
William Kemp, walking past the sheriff’s station in Compton, is a longtime community activist.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Compton currently pays Los Angeles County about $22 million annually to have deputies patrol the city of nearly 100,000.

Since the sheriff took over enforcement duties in 2000, the city has seen a remarkable turnaround, with crime significantly down from the 1990s. At its peak in 1991, Compton recorded 87 killings. Last year the number had fallen to 21, according to the Sheriff’s Department website.

Violent crime — including homicide, robbery and aggravated assault — decreased nearly 1.5% through August of this year compared with the same period in 2019, the department’s data show.

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Longtime Compton resident Tito Palomares says his neighborhood has felt safer since the Sheriff’s Department came in.

“Before, you couldn’t even walk your dog outside,” the 36-year-old said as he packed groceries into his car near Rosecrans and North Central avenues.

“I’ve seen shootings,” Palomares said, but none since the deputies began patrolling the area. “I agree that there’s some bad cops, but I think they are mostly good.”

Compton officials acknowledge that violent crime has decreased over the years, but said the department’s responsibility in the community extended beyond just enforcement of the law.

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Mayor Pro Tem Michelle Chambers said cutting ties with the Sheriff’s Department was not completely off the table, but city officials want to come up with an “amicable resolution” on how to better serve residents.

“We need law enforcement,” Chambers said. “We just need respectful, fair law enforcement.”

The city was rocked in June when 18-year-old Andres Guardado was fatally shot in neighboring Gardena, and in August when bicyclist Dijon Kizzee, 29, was killed in Westmont. Recent allegations of a rogue, tattooed group of deputies known as the “Executioners” working within the Compton sheriff’s station and accused of using excessive force have also put the department under a microscope.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva vowed to crack down on deputy gangs, but also has been accused by department watchdogs of failing to sufficiently discipline deputies.

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Last month, two deputies were shot while sitting in their patrol car near the Compton Metro station. Deonte Lee Murray, 36, was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Capt. La Tonya Clark, who grew up in Compton and took over as lead officer at the sheriff’s station in October 2019, would not comment on pending investigations of the Executioners or the police-involved shootings. Despite the criticism, she said, many residents support the department.

Still, the death in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide protests in support of criminal justice reform have set back community relations, Clark said.

“Right now there is a gap between law enforcement and the community,” she said. “We were on our way to being very successful in ending that gap, and then certain events pushed us away. So I’m hoping that we can get back to mending those things.”

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Compton officials are hoping to bridge that gap as well with a review board launched in September.

The 11-member panel is composed of community stakeholders charged with providing recommendations for policy reform for the local sheriff’s station and will act as a liaison between residents and law enforcement. Board members, who were selected by City Council members, will also monitor and field complaints from residents about the Sheriff’s Department.

“Our goal is to just change the chain of command for reporting and create more transparency so, at the very least, we are knowledgeable about what’s happening in the community,” the mayor said.

Clark said she welcomed oversight from residents.

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“What they will find is that every single complaint that is made to us, the Sheriff’s Department, is investigated accordingly,” she said. “Not everyone is always happy with the outcome, but every complaint is taken seriously, and we investigate thoroughly.”

Michael Fisher stands before a cross in the Compton church of the Greater Zion Church Family.
Michael Fisher, pastor of Greater Zion Church Family in Compton.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Pastor Michael Fisher of Greater Zion Church Family, who was nominated to the board, said he wanted the committee to have “subpoena and investigative power” over the department.

“It’s not good enough just for the Sheriff’s [Department] to report to us after they’ve done what they’ve done,” said Fisher, 41, who has worked on several initiatives with the department over the years. “We want to be brought to the table.”

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Fisher and a collective of pastors will be holding a rally Thursday to engage with politicians in multiple cities about how to hold law enforcement accountable and create more police oversight commissions.

Among residents, many young people see law enforcement as a threat, while some older citizens view them as protectors.

Charles Davis, 76, who has lived in Compton for nearly 50 years, said he disagreed with criticism of the department.

“When your people in positions of authority are saying we want them out, they’re nothing but gangsters, how do you resolve?” Davis, a Compton Unified School District board member, said of deputies. “You can’t say they’re all bad and continue to get a different response because not all of them are bad.”

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Justin Blakely sits on a park picnic table.
Justin Blakely, a community activist who ran for City Council in 2019, says his perspective on police has shifted.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Justin Blakely said his father was an officer at the Compton Police Department for 15 years.

When he was younger, Blakely said, he had a positive view of police, which he attributed to the fact they lived and worked in the community they protected and served. But as he’s gotten older, his perspective has shifted.

“For me, personally, driving through the city of Compton, you won’t even get pulled over, but you’ll get followed the entire time,” said Blakely, 24, who ran for City Council in 2019 and works as a community activist. “As a Black man … I get so scared cause you just don’t know.”

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A ballot initiative that would provide residents greater control over who polices the city is needed to force real reform, said William Kemp, a Compton native, longtime community activist and former mayoral candidate.

“I think if there was a line of communication and we could develop an olive branch with law enforcement, they’re the best law enforcement we could have,” he said. “But when you get down to it, there has to be a better relationship with the community they serve in.”


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