Working Solo at Ground Zero

What is it going to take before police administrators double up these cars? There is no sane reason to send young cops out in solo units in areas like Compton's ground zero.

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Photo: Richard Valdemar.Photo: Richard Valdemar.

The intersection of Willowbrook and Compton Boulevard in the city of Compton, Calif., is known as "ground zero." The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department station there is located where the Compton PD station once stood, just south of ground zero on Willowbrook.

If Los Angeles can be considered the mother spawner of gangs, then Compton and South Central L.A. must be the belly of the beast. Even the legendary Latino 38th Street Gang, which was infamous for the 1940s Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots, began in South Central and not East Los Angeles. In 1943 martial law had to be declared to end the conflict between the soldiers and sailors and the Pachuco Gangs.

In August of 1965, Watts and Compton exploded in another majorly violent period of civil unrest, rioting, and looting. In my opinion, the "Watts Riots" was the most violent riot in Los Angeles history. These were the radical 1960s, and militant groups and gangs made this riot much worse than the earlier Zoot Suit riots, or the anti-war riots of the 1970s or even the Rodney King Riots of 1992.

These ground zero-type locations also exist in the Southside of Chicago and in New York's Harlem and Brooklyn neighborhoods. Unfortunately, similar gang epicenters have been spawned in most big cities across America.

But this one is mine; I was born and raised in Compton and it will always be my hometown. On Easter eve, April 23, I "rode along" in a one-man Compton patrol unit on the early morning shift. The solo patrol officer was Dep. Al Rodriguez, who navigated and commanded the unit until 0700 hours on Easter morning. Because of the holiday and call-ins, only six patrol cars worked the streets that shift. Two were one-man units.

Let me tell you about Compton's history, so you'll understand my view on why one-man patrols are a bad idea in this area.

The streets around ground zero can be a dangerous place. Incorporated as a city in 1889, the "Hub City" now has a population of about 94,000 souls. In the 1960s, the incorporated city of Compton was patrolled by Compton PD, but LASD Firestone Sheriff's patrolled the unincorporated county areas. Crime was rampant in both areas and gang murders among the numerous Black and Brown Gangs were common.

You can read about the earlier "Wild Wild West" days of Compton PD in the recently released book "VICE - One Cop's Story of Patrolling America's Most Dangerous City" by former Compton PD Sergeant John "Rick" Baker and Stephen J. Rivelle. Among the heroes of this book is my uncle (more like an older brother to me), Julio Hernandez. This man was a legend in Compton and was my inspiration to become a good cop.

In a highly controversial decision, Compton city officials disbanded the PD in 2000 and the city contracted for services from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to save money. Since going to LASD there have been several attempts to re-establish a Compton City Police Department. Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin, a former Compton police officer, is an outspoken advocate for returning to a city police department.

Back in 2000, I was assigned to research and write an opinion about the Sheriff's Department's takeover of the city. I wrote that the proposed coverage by LASD was seriously underestimating the cost of the takeover. The plan did not take into consideration Compton's large unreported crime rate, the huge number of parolees living in the area, the numerous street and prison gangs operating in the city, and the unsolved murder cases and other crimes requiring considerable manpower and man-hours from headquarters detective and homicide units.

When Compton mayor Omar Bradley pushed for the LASD takeover in 2000, some groups in the city threatened his life. My unit was assigned to provide him security until he left office. (He would later be convicted of corruption and sentenced to prison.) Some say that the current mayor has also been threatened.

In a Los Angeles Times article written Dec. 10, 2010, Los Angeles Sheriff Leroy Baca admitted that the County spent over 20 million dollars above and beyond the estimated 17.8 million dollars paid by the City for LASD police services.

Sheriff Baca pointed to significant reductions in the violent crime statistics since the 2000 takeover, but Mayor Perrodin pointed out that the tiny city of Compton still ranked the eighth most dangerous city in the nation.

When I went for that ride along in Compton earlier this year, except for the numerous large and noisy parties we were dispatched to that night and the drunk driving accidents that occurred, the night seemed strangely quiet and less dangerous than I remembered growing up or working in this district.

In a Los Angeles Times article by Robert Faturechi and Ann M. Simmons on Jan. 18, it was reported that between 2009 and 2010 homicide dropped from 36 to 24 in the 10 square miles of Compton, and far below the 1991 figure of 87 slayings. All violent crimes were down including assaults and rapes.

But for me it was the lack of gunfire that I noticed that night. The sporadic sounds of gunshots — including full automatic fire — were very common here in the 1960s through the 1990s. Before Compton PD was disbanded and after Firestone Sheriff's Station closed, Century Sheriff's Station installed a high-tech "gunshot (sniper) locator" system to respond to those sporadic gunshot calls. However, there were so many gunshots being fired the system was soon overwhelmed. Even the station itself and the Century Jail buildings were sometimes struck by gunfire.

But make no mistake; the streets of Compton remain asphalt jungles filled with dangerous criminal predators and gang members. After a few pedestrian and vehicle stops during my ride along, I began to wonder why anyone in his right mind would assign patrol cars in Compton as one-man units. There were also a few elite OSS Gang Units working the gang areas earlier in the evening and I noted that they were all two-man units.

I remember that we had been told in the academy that there was an old law enforcement study that suggested one-man units were statistically safer than two-man units. I suspect that this was some pencil-pushing bean counter's use of the study to justify some budget-saving idea to field more one-man units.

But any thinking cop knows that one-man units (correctly) avoid the most dangerous car and multiple pedestrian stops that a two-man unit would not hesitate to make. In 2010, 20 percent of U.S. fatal officer shootings occurred in ambush-type situations. We know that two sets of eyes, two sets of hands, and two brains are better than one. So what is it going to take before police administrators double up these cars? There is no sane reason to send young cops out in solo units in areas like ground zero.

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Sergeant (Ret.)
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