COMPTON — On a recent afternoon at Gonzales Park in the northwest corner of this city, the only visitors were three young men perched on a picnic table near the parking lot.
Cars cruised in and out of the lot, bringing buyers for the merchandise the young men kept hidden in paper bags stashed throughout the park in bushes, beneath boards, between bricks in the dilapidated restroom walls.
At Leuders Park, two miles west along Rosecrans Avenue, the merry-go-round was in perpetual motion, a jogger pounded along the park perimeter and young boys warmed up for baseball practice. The only cars that cruised in and out belonged to parents who were picking up or dropping off their children.
Unlike Gonzales Park, Leuders and a park across town, Kelly, have been recaptured from the gangs and drug dealers who once controlled them.
"Leuders Park Pirus, it belonged to them," recalled police Sgt. Willie Mosley, head of Compton's narcotics bureau. Kelly Park was home to the Kelly Park Crips, he said. "There was a time when all you'd find in that park was gang bangers and dope dealers. Now you see parents with their children."
Compton's strategy for giving the parks back to the people was to set up police substations, an idea now taking hold in Los Angeles and other cities battling to save their neighborhoods from gang control.
The substations, similar to precinct stations in big cities, are staffed from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. daily by a uniformed officer. In addition to maintaining law and order in the park, the officer patrols and answers calls within a 12-block radius.
Besides the uniformed officer, the substation staff includes an armed, uniformed city security guard and a community services officer who takes accident and theft reports, saving people the trouble of having to travel downtown to the main police station.
On a recent spring evening, Irma Herrera and a group of other mothers strolled with their children to the Leuders Park playground, where the youngsters played on the swings and the merry-go-round and scrambled on the jungle gyms. Such an outing would have been too dangerous before the substation was established, she said.
Before the substation, the gangs "sold a lot of drugs and fought too much with guns," said another mother, Maria Pinedo. "A lot of shots (were fired) in the day and the night."
But since July 1986, when the substations opened, not one criminal incident has been reported in either park, Compton police say.
The substations were established at a minimal cost to the city because Leuders and Kelly parks already had buildings, said Assistant City Manager Howard Caldwell.
It wasn't necessary to hire new officers, either, Caldwell said. The city just deployed its existing force differently.
3 More Planned
The substations have been such a success that the city is budgeting for three more--in Gonzales and West parks and in Sunny Cove, a development of about 300 single-family homes that is nearing completion.
"The people just love them," said Officer James Russell, who works the night shift at the Kelly Park substation and previously patrolled the area for four years. "I don't think we could close them now if we wanted to."
Russell can often be spotted in the early evening standing on the sidewalk, chatting with neighbors or shooting baskets with the teen-age boys who frequent the park.
The youths still belong to gangs but have come to understand that Leuders and Kelly are off limits for any type of gang activity, even the wearing of colors, police say. Anyone who walks into the parks wearing red or blue, or the green of Compton's Lime Street gang, is told to leave.
"By telling them they can't wear colors," said Russell, a 13-year veteran of the force, "we're telling them we're not going to tolerate any gang activity, period.
'Belongs to Public'
"What I did when I first came over here is I brought them in and I explained to them that the park belongs to the public," Russell said. Then he started handing out citations by the dozens for offenses such as littering, marijuana possession and drinking.
"It only took something like three weeks," Russell said, before gang members got the message that they no longer controlled the park and had to obey the rules.
If school-age youngsters are spotted in the park in the middle of a weekday, they too are ordered out.
"He belongs in school," said Officer William Brown, explaining why, on a recent afternoon at Kelly Park, he strolled over to a picnic table and told a teen-age boy to leave.
In a city plagued by a high crime rate, officers are proud of their success with the substations. Cmdr. Dallas Elvis, who heads the police Operational Services Bureau, which oversees the substations, makes his headquarters in Leuders Park.
"Go out and tell me if you can find any graffiti in this park," he said. "Let L.A. make that claim."
At Kelly Park, Russell said: "Look at the park. You don't see beer bottles, cans."
Residents say the substations also have improved the safety of surrounding areas.
"There were many, many shootings here--one right there on the corner," said Ollie Brown, who lives around the corner from Leuders Park and heads a neighborhood block committee. "The neighborhood is not perfect, but it's a whole lot better."