There are still plenty of signs of the violent crime and the gangs that have plagued this city for years.
School police carry guns and wear bulletproof vests. At dusk in the downtown, cash register receipts drop off sharply at the only sit-down restaurant. And last month, an 11-year-old boy was killed on a school playground, an innocent victim caught in the path of gang gunfire.
There are other signs, though, that the violence and the gang warfare have begun to ebb.
The number of homicides has been dropping steadily for more than a year. Between Jan. 1 and April 30, there were 19 murders, compared with 30 in the same period last year. The number of murders last year dropped to 78 from an all-time high of 84 in 1989.
The number of gang-related homicides also has dropped. In 1989, 34 homicides were classified as gang-related, according to Bobbie L. McDowell, the Compton Police Department's crime analyst. Last year, 24 homicides were gang-related.
Overall crime in the city was down more than 9.62% last year.
Law enforcement experts hesitate to make predictions based on the crime data, but city officials and educators are hailing the decrease in crime as a sign that their efforts against violence and gangs are finally paying off.
"You're just now seeing that the anti-gang programs started in the elementary schools are starting to bear fruit," said Kelvin D. Filer, a Compton Unified School District trustee. "I don't have any statistics to prove it, but I do think it's starting to have an effect, especially since we're (now) starting in the elementary level instead of waiting until junior high school."
Two years ago, the Compton Unified School District instituted a 15-week, anti-gang program in third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms. The state-funded program, Operation New Start, stresses self-esteem, motivation and the importance of making choices.
"We try to go in and change the youngsters' attitudes if they're inclined to want to be gangbangers or drug dealers," said Willard McCrumby Jr., a former high school principal who helped develop the program and now directs it.
Law enforcement experts have a number of theories on why crime in Compton is dropping.
Sgt. Red Mason, a veteran gang investigator in the Compton Police Department, believes there is less crime because there are fewer gang members on the street. "You know it's on the decline when you put 50% of them in jail," Mason said, echoing the sentiments of many police officers who say the declining crime rate is the result of their hard work.
The Police Department five years ago created a permanent gang unit to gather information on gang activities and to increase the number of arrests, he said.
Mason and other law enforcement officers also point out that the gang violence has brought about tougher criminal penalties. The state criminal code now allows judges to give felons longer prison sentences if they are known gang members.
Another possible reason for the dropping crime rate is that some gang members moved their activity from Compton to other cities in the area or outside the state. Law enforcement officers in the Southland say it is not unusual to receive calls from police in such places as Houston, Kansas City or Seattle, saying that known gang members from Southern California are now operating on their streets.
Police also point out that another factor in Compton's dropping homicide rate may be the ban on the sale or possession of semiautomatic assault rifles. None of the murders this year involved semiautomatic assault weapons, and they were involved in only two last year, the first full year of the ban. In 1989, these weapons were used in 19 homicides, according to city police statistics.
Law enforcement experts emphasized, however, that they are not sure whether the dropping crime rate signals a trend or is simply a temporary lull.
"It's too early to say," said county Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Joseph Holmes, who heads the gang unit at the Lynwood sheriff's station, which has jurisdiction over unincorporated county areas in and around Compton. "I've been working with gangs all my life, it seems, and I'll tell you this: It goes in patterns. Two or three years you'll be up in one area, Hispanic or black, then be down in another area."
He said Latino gang activity is increasing in his areas of jurisdiction.
Compton Police Cmdr. Hourie Taylor, who headed the department's gang unit until he was promoted last year, also said he is reluctant to predict whether the crime rate will continue to drop. "Who knows what it's going to do in two or three years?" he said.
Councilwoman Patricia A. Moore says the Police Department and its chief, Terry Ebert, deserve credit for the dropping crime rate.
"But when you talk to people in the street," Moore added, "they are still very, very concerned . . . We still live in fear. There's no way of getting around it."