Terror, Hope on the Streets of Compton, Part 1

Two-Part Compton Series

Gang violence has spiked dramatically on the streets of Compton, the small city in South-Central Los Angeles that has long been plagued by gangs and drugs. In the first of a two-part series, Luke Burbank reports on the more than 50 active street gangs who contribute to the city's reputation as one of the most violent places in America.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Compton, California is a small city with a big reputation. Just ten square miles perched on the southeast edge of Los Angeles, Compton is home to some 57 active gangs.

ADAMS: That are seemingly getting more active. Last year the murder rate jumped by more than 70 percent. Investigators say almost all the killings were gang related. In the first of two reports, NPR's Luke Burbank looks at some of the reasons why gang life is so entrenched in Compton.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Alex Vasquez actually comes off as a pretty nice guy. The 28-year-old with a shaved head wears a wry smile and an oversized hooded sweatshirt as he stands in front of the modest Compton duplex he and his family call home. Really, the only thing that tips you off about his scarier side is a habit he has, one you'll see a lot of if you spend any time in Compton, of jerking his head around reflexively to scope out any car that even starts to come down his street.

Mr. ALEX VASQUEZ (Resident, Compton): Yeah, it's a reflex. Yeah, because you're waiting for somebody to start pulling out a gun or you want to wait for somebody, especially here in Compton, you don't know. It might be some little youngster that probably just he's like trying to make a name for himself, let's go hit them.

BURBANK: Vasquez knows what he's talking about. For the last 20 years he's been a member of Compton Barrio Trace, the gang that runs this particular neighborhood. Doing the math you realize that means he was eight years old when he joined. Since then he's been in and out of prison, just finishing two years on drug and weapons charges. Vasquez says growing up in this part of Compton pretty much guarantees people will mess with you. Many kids join a gang just so somebody has their back.

Mr. VASQUEZ: If anybody sees you coming out of a block they're figuring, you know what, you're a gang member or you're from their gang. You've got to be from, even though if you're not, you might as well get in so you can have somebody protect you, you know.

BURBANK: Nobody claims to know definitively why the murder rate spiked last year, but a few things stick out. For one, a large number of O.G's, original hardcore gang members, have been getting out of prison after serving 10 to 15 year sentences. There's also more racial tension between Compton's black and Latino gangs than ever before. And some people are wondering if the L.A. County Sheriff's Department is doing it's job policing the city. Captain Mike Ford runs the department's gang unit.

Captain MIKE FORD (L.A. County Sheriff's Department): It's an affront to us when the crime goes up that much. It makes us wonder what's going on. Are we doing our job or are we not doing our job?

BURBANK: Compton used to have its own police department, but it was disbanded back in 2001, supposedly because the Sheriff's Department could do the job more cheaply. Some former Compton P.D. members like Bobby Ladd say Sheriff's Department personnel don't know enough about the gang scene in Compton because they get rotated all over the county.

Mr. BOBBY LADD (Former Compton Police Department Member): And they don't know where they're going to get assigned. They could be in Compton one year. The next week they can be in Lakewood. We didn't have that luxury. We were stuck in Compton.

BURBANK: Ladd spent 18 years as an investigator there and says he knew just about every gang member in the city by name. It's that sort of familiarity he says the Sheriff's Department lacks because it's a county wide agency.

Mr. LADD: I mean, intel is 85 percent of solving the crimes in a city like Compton because most of the crimes are gang related. If you don't know the players and you don't the people that you're dealing with, then you're not going to solve the crime.

Mr. FORD: Are there people who are assigned to Compton that that's not their first choice? Of course there are.

BURBANK: Captain Mike Ford concedes there's more turnover in the Sheriff's Department than there was when Compton had its own police. But, he says, in some ways that's actually a good thing.

Mr. FORD: The advantage we have over a municipal police department is if we get somebody who's burned out and wants to move on we do have options for him, so we can bring somebody in who is reenergized and invigorated and wants to work hard.

BURBANK: But a look at the numbers from 2005 tell a different story. While violent crime fell overall in the L.A. area, it actually increased on average in the jurisdictions handled by the Sheriff's Department. Hoping to get control of the situation in Compton, the department has stepped up patrols and doubled its number of gang investigators.

Mr. CARLOS HERRERA (Gang Investigator, Compton): This is known as the 720s, because the address is 720 East Compton.

BURBANK: Guys like Carlos Herrera and Joe Gonzalez.

Mr. JOE GONZALEZ (Gang Investigator, Compton): Hello, little guys.

Unidentified Male #1: Hi.

Mr. GONZALEZ: How are you doing?

Unidentified Male #2: Fine.

Mr. GONZALEZ: All right.

BURBANK: Each night they roll through Compton in their unmarked gray car, chewing their tobacco and navigating a honeycomb of gang activity. Each block belongs to a different crew, Tortilla Flats, Treetop Piru(ph), Nutty Block.

Mr. HERRERA: What's up, fellas? Is that your car? Registered to you and everything?

Unidentified Male #3: Yup, and that's my car.

Mr. HERRERA: Man, you're rolling. You got a driver's license and everything?

Unidentified Male #3: Yeah, I got it.

Mr. HERRERA: It's all good, all valid?

BURBANK: Herrera slides up to a car full of slouching teenagers. They're members of the Palmer Block Crips.

Mr. HERRERA: You guys here about the last shooting up here?

Unidentified Male #3: I heard the shooting.

Mr. HERRERA: Did you hear it from here? Sounded like what? From the Fifth or what?

BURBANK: It's his job to watch Palmer Block, a black gang from Central Compton, while his partner, Gonzales, is assigned to keep tabs on Compton Barrio 155, a Latino gang. Palmer Block and 155 are serious rivals. Racial tension has grown so high that even locking guys up hasn't contained it. Last month a series of racially charged brawls put California prisons on lockdown. Officials say the beefs started out on the streets of places like Compton.

Midway through their shift Herrera and Gonzales have pulled over a young gang member with an outstanding warrant. He's cuffed and sitting by the side of the car when a frantic call explodes across the radio.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

BURBANK: Two members of the 183 gang are shooting at deputies who tried to pull them over on a simple traffic stop. As a convoy of red and blue lights race toward the scene a sheriff's helicopter tracks the suspects from overhead.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

BURBANK: The gang members are firing at everyone, deputies on the ground, the helicopter. In the mayhem they blast their way into a house where a family of five has just gone to bed for the night.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

BURBANK: Suddenly a woman runs out of the house in her nightgown. She's dazed.

Unidentified Female: They upstairs, my husband and my brother is upstairs. My parents in downstairs. They're in that room right there.

Unidentified Male: That one right there?

Unidentified Female: That one right there. They're in that room right there. I just ran.

BURBANK: The SWAT team and hostage negotiators are called in. It takes hours, but amazingly they manage to talk the two suspects into coming out of the house unarmed. Most importantly, the family is okay.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

BURBANK:The good news is that these particular gang members, who were trying not to get caught for parole violations, are now behind bars. The bad news is that there are hundreds more like them still on the streets.

Mr. MIKE BACA (Compton Paramedic): You're not going to get rid of the problem unless you offer alternatives. That just goes without saying.

BURBANK: Mike Baca is a Compton paramedic who spends most of his free time trying to get gang members out of the life. He says what they really need are jobs.

BACA: I've seen this done before, where you get guys who are selling crack or you see them selling weed, they'll take that job that pays them 6.75 an hour. Believe it or not. Because they don't have to look over their back.

BURBANK: Alex Vasquez, the long time member of Compton Barrio Tres, actually has a job these days, but he says he still gang bangs. I asked him if he thought that lifestyle would eventually get him killed.

Mr. VASQUEZ: Well, if I keep living here, yeah. Somebody's going to gun me down, maybe they're going to gun me down for something I did a while back.

BURBANK: Most of us would be on the next bus out of town if we thought it would keep us alive, but not Vasquez. With a look of resignation he sets his eyes on a huge palm tree where his gang's logo, the number three, is spray painted.

Mr. VASQUEZ: You can be anywhere, somebody's going to shoot you. That's the way I look at it. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. You never know. Especially here in Compton. You don't know.

BURBANK: One thing that does seem clear, Compton's gangs are having no trouble finding new recruits, including Alex Vasquez's younger brother who was just jumped in as a member of Compton Barrio Tres. Luke Burbank, NPR News, Los Angeles.

BRAND: Tomorrow, in the second part of his series, Luke reports on how Compton's reputation as a gang haven has affected civic life there.

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