Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Should the L.A. city be more worried about a recent rise in murders, or the rise in brutality and racism among its police force?
So far this year, Compton already has experienced triple the number of killings the city suffered over all of 2015, reports the L.A. Times, and that’s not good. But also troubling is the fact that this rise is leading to the expansion of a sheriff’s department currently plagued with racism and police-brutality scandals. On May 16, two L.A. county sheriffs were convicted of beating a mentally ill inmate and are now facing up to 40 years in prison. On May 2, Tom Angel resigned from his post as the L.A. County sheriff’s chief of staff after the L.A. Times publicized a string of emails from his deputies disparaging Muslims, Mexicans, and African Americans, and made sexist comments about women.
But it’s this sheriff’s department that Compton, a majority Mexican- and African-American city, has had to depend on since its municipal police department was disbanded in 2000. Compton now contracts with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to handle its policing. Given the recent rise in crime, Compton is now expanding the sheriff’s presence in the city, with the U.S. Justice Department’s assistance.
In 2015, Compton received a $1 million grant when it was selected to become one of the pilot cities for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Violence Reduction Network. This means more money, equipment, and trainings on how police can pinpoint or even predict where shootings are likely to happen to help target their monitoring practices. Beyond the sheriff’s department, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Drug Enforcement Administration are all setting up shop in Compton, a city of fewer than 100,000 residents.
The L.A. Times reports that this also means more funding for youth intervention services. However, neither the sheriff’s department nor the federal agencies have been forthcoming about how much funding is going towards policing versus youth programs.
That lack of transparency is troubling given the historical distrust between communities of color and police, which the L.A. county sheriffs have not done much to change. Some believe that the homicide reports are being played up as a ploy to justify the further militarizing of a police force in ways that might further incense these communities. Compton’s murder rate may have tripled since last year, but the 15 killings in the city this year is far below what the landscape looked like a few decades ago, when homicide numbers were closer to 100 annually.
Hamid Khan, campaign coordinator for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, tells CityLab that such murder reports entail “a certain level of sensationalism.”
“When talking about the levels of violence, we have to look at how many resources are allocated to policing the community as opposed to what’s provided for what public safety really looks like for these communities,” says Khan. “More money is budgeted for policing versus how much money is budgeted for youth programs, but [Compton is] still being written about like we’re back in the ‘80s again.”
The L.A.-based Youth Justice Coalition has been tracking such funding paths, and on May 24 sent its members to an LAPD commission hearing to lobby for more funds devoted to helping disadvantaged youth. From the coalition’s website:
Greater funding and transparency is essential to ensuring that LA becomes a place where all youth have an opportunity to succeed, are prepared for college and a career, and have a future beyond a dangerous job in the underground economy, beyond debilitating, underpaid and undervalued work, beyond death in the streets or life behind bars. ...
Locked out of wealth, resources and opportunities, locked out of schools that are too quick to suspend and expel students, and bolt their doors at 3:30pm, eliminating any opportunities for greater community use of their facilities, and locked out of much that LA has to offer, because youth lack access to free public transportation; ...
Locked in geographically isolated, under-resourced and often violent neighborhoods, locked in their homes without adult guidance and support, and without safe, supervised spaces for youth after school, on weekends and during summer months, locked in to debilitating labels that are hard to shake – “gang member, teen parent, school drop-out, runaway youth, at-risk youth” – and that often lead to police tracking and surveillance through mechanisms such as gang databases; and literally locked in through the use of house arrest, gang injunctions, or other suppression strategies.
Such concerns show that the “Fuck tha Police” sentiments expressed by Compton-based rap groups like N.W.A. in the ‘80s and ‘90s are still alive and well there. Compton-native stars like Kendrick Lamar, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams have been leading a revival of sorts for the city, along with its energetic new mayor Aja Brown, to change the city’s violent reputation.
But the direction of new funding and resources will determine whether that renaissance will happen, or whether there will simply be a revival of over-aggressive policing. Given the current scandals the L.A. Sheriff’s Department is currently mired in, it doesn’t look like its earned the communities’ trust in that kind of expansion.