Homicides plunge, hope rises in Compton

Children embrace at a Compton church event in January. Faith Inspirational Missionary Baptist Church offers free movies in local parks, and draws large crowds as people feel safer going out.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

It is a Sunday morning and there is still dew on the grass outside Faith Inspirational Missionary Baptist Church. Already, God has received a standing ovation. The thermometer on the wall claims it’s only 75 degrees in here, but congregants are dancing in the aisles, some with their shoes kicked off and stashed under the pews. Their sweat mixes with their tears, and for once in Compton, they are tears of joy.

“People of faith!” thunders the Rev. Rafer Owens, a native son who is also a veteran Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy. “Are you ready to praise the Lord?”

Six hundred people respond: “Ha-roo!”

“Are you ready to take back Compton?”

Louder this time: “Ha-ROO!”

“We disrespected the city of Compton,” Owens says, more quietly now. “And when you don’t want something, you give it to the rats and the roaches.”


They’ve been praying for a long time in Compton, praying hard. For a long time, it seemed no one was listening.

“Father God, some people in here are hurting,” the pastor says, head bowed. “They have given what they feel is their last mile.”

But change, he insists, is afoot.

Takin’ a life or two

That’s what the hell I do

By the time the hip-hop group N.W.A released its seminal 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton,” with those lyrics, the city’s fate seemed sealed. The album was a celebration of the gang life; killing was described as an inescapable part of life.

The town that many still refer to as “Old Compton” -- poor but proud, with an abiding sense of community -- had been ravaged by guns, crack and joblessness. With just 100,000 people, Compton developed an outsize but deserved reputation as a national epicenter of gang violence.

Today, there are 65 gangs jammed into 10 square miles -- Front Hood Crips and Pirus and Seminoles, bored and broke, jaded and angry, sure that life has little to offer. The turf for some is no bigger than a football field, and they will defend it against any perceived slight. That’s how it’s been here for almost three decades.

So it came as something of a surprise when the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which contracts to provide police services here, added up the community’s 2008 homicides. The total for Compton, including smaller, adjacent pockets of unincorporated county land: 38.

It was the lowest number in at least 25 years and a 50% drop since 2005. From 1985 to 2000, said Sheriff’s Capt. William M. Ryan, an average of 66 people were slain each year within the city limits; that number fell last year to 28. Gang-related aggravated assaults have fallen too in the city and the county pockets, nearly 25% over four years -- “dramatic indicators,” Sheriff Lee Baca said at a recent news conference, “that we are doing the right thing.”

The sheriff did not mention an irony: Compton, while widely viewed as a success story, is one of the few L.A.-area communities where crime is rising. Both the city and county of Los Angeles saw declines in major crimes last year; in Compton, such crimes rose by 13% in the same period.

However, officials said, most of the increase was in property crimes -- burglary, up 39%; larceny, up 27%. Authorities attribute that to the bad economy. A poor community with high unemployment, Ryan said, “is affected the most.”

So in a sense, Compton is trading blood in the streets for stolen lawn mowers -- and around here, that’s a bargain many will live with.

Indeed, there is a palpable sense that the streets are safer. In a neighborhood called Sunny Cove, residents take a group walk on Mondays now, unthinkable a few years back. Owens’ church offers free movies in local parks; the program started slowly, but 900 people came out for the most recent screening, at Lueders Park off Rosecrans Avenue.

“People jog. People walk their dogs. That’s different,” said William Kemp, a business owner who was born and raised in Compton and is running to fill a vacancy on the City Council. “Is Compton completely safe? No. But are we safer? Absolutely.”

Satra Zurita and her sister pooled money six years ago to buy a small home on the west side of Compton, in a neighborhood that, like many others, is known by the name of its gang: Nutty Blocc. Since they moved in, a young man has been killed on the corner and a neighbor shot in the leg during a drive-by.

“There’ve been times,” said Zurita, a local school board member and the daughter of a former City Council member, “when we’ve said: ‘What . . . were we thinking?’ ”

But she said they now believe they made the right decision.

“There is a sense of safety that I don’t think I’ve ever felt,” she said.

No, Zurita said, she will not be taking the bars off her windows any time soon. And everyone here knows the tide could turn again at any moment. But for now, she hears fewer gunshots outside her house and is only rarely awakened by police helicopters. It’s a start; she’ll take it. And those soaring theft rates?

“Oh,” she said, “people are just stealing to feed their family.”

Late on a recent night, Det. Joe Sumner, part of the sheriff’s gang detail, rumbled through the narrow streets in an unmarked cruiser. Sumner’s knowledge of Compton gangs is encyclopedic; put him on any block and he can instantly tell you whose turf you’re on.

This night, though, many blocks were dark and empty; they’ve been that way lately. Amid a concerted law enforcement push, scores of gang members have been imprisoned, and more have given up and moved away -- to Riverside, Fresno, Las Vegas.

“There has been so much pressure put on these guys,” Sumner said.

Suddenly he jerked his car toward the sidewalk and bolted from the car. Two young men, documented gangsters, raised their hands, almost instinctively. They knew the drill. They lifted their shirts to show that they were not hiding guns, then spread their legs and put their hands on the warm hood of Sumner’s car while he patted them down. Sumner found no drugs and no weapons.

“Take off,” he said. To the younger man, he added: “Say hi to your dad.”

That, officials said, has been the key to combating gang violence: pairing aggressive enforcement with programs designed to improve the relationship between the community and the cops.

It is a stark contrast to the 1980s, when area law enforcement agencies launched a gang crackdown that resembled a military operation, destroying any semblance of a relationship between the agencies and the communities they served.

Since Ryan took command of the Compton station two years ago, the number of Explorer Scouts has risen from eight to 25, that of station volunteers from 10 to 55, and reserve deputies from just one previously to eight. Neighborhood Watch and business watch programs are popping up all over town.

The department runs the Compton Youth Activities League in a former National Guard armory, and about 150 kids come each month for after-school programs. Almost all have a close relative in prison, officials said, and many have been removed from their families and placed in the foster care system.

The other day, a tutor helped children with homework, while other youngsters played pool with a deputy. Ricardo Villeda, 14, said he’d been coming to the armory to learn boxing for about a week. He said his mother would have forbidden it in the past because his 20-minute walk home would have been too dangerous.

Programs are free, including the newest, “Science Alive,” designed by a veteran sergeant. So far, about 160 fifth-graders have graduated, after dissecting pigs’ hearts and learning about weather systems. The two participating schools reported that the number of students ranked “proficient” in science last year jumped 20%.

Still, crises arise in Compton that are unthinkable in most communities. Last year, several students reported being robbed after school and deputies had to step in to calm the situation when scores of fearful kids abruptly stopped going to school.

“It’s a tough life,” said Deputy Alfonso Rodriguez, who runs the youth center. “If you give a damn, there is a lot at stake.”