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Truce Among Black Gangs Is a Victim of the Streets : Violence: Nobody's talking peace anymore, police say, but the brief cease-fire had a profound effect on the number of homicides last year.

February 07, 1993|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COMPTON — Pulling up to a curb on Johnson Street, Police Officers Timothy Brennan and Robert Ladd eye a small group of gang members leaning against cars and fences.

"What's happening?" Brennan says casually. How's that truce holding up? he asks. The young men glance quickly at their leader, a heavy-set man in a green shirt, who stares straight ahead, expressionless.

"What truce?" someone grumbles low. Then they all clam up.

The truce struck by black gangs throughout Los Angeles County after last spring's riots can be seen unraveling on Compton streets. Nobody seems to be talking peace anymore, Brennan and Ladd said.

But that all-too-brief cease-fire had a profound effect on the city.

Compton's homicide rate dropped 30% in 1992. There were 59 killings, compared to 87 in 1991.

Officers say, without a trace of doubt, that the plunge in slayings was due to the gang truce. There were 30 gang-related homicides in 1991 and 19 last year. Of those 19, 12 occurred before the truce and only one of the other seven involved a black gang.

But now, with the brotherhood of last spring and summer giving way to a renewal of old gang feuds, police fear that 30% drop in homicides may be just a blip in the statistics.

"I want to believe that these gang killings will continue to (decrease)," Police Chief Hourie Taylor said. "And truthfully, I think it will take a long time--years--to get as bad as it was, if it ever does. The problem is, now, no (gang leaders are) backing up the truce anymore, and some of these guys are going back to their old ways."

In addition, Latino gangs, which officers believe may outnumber black gangs in the city, never stopped fighting. In fact, violence among Latino gangs escalated as their numbers grew and drug territory became cramped, Sgt. Reggie Wright said.

But during the truce between black gangs, officers saw a marked difference in the city whose name has become synonymous with violence.

Wright, Brennan and Ladd, who make up the Police Department's gang unit, remember watching in amazement as young men who were once bitter enemies hugged each other during cease-fire celebrations. All of them still wore gang colors, but the old rivalries didn't seem to matter.

"We thought, 'No way,' when they first started talking about a truce," Ladd said. "But I was totally amazed. During those truce celebrations in the park--all of them wearing red rags and blue rags both, drinking out of the same beer (can), kicking it together. It was great while it lasted."

The truce between black gangs lasted until September, when one set took up an old feud, although police are not sure why.

The gang members drove into what was--before the truce--enemy territory and got out of their car. They walked calmly over to a group of men and opened fire, Wright said, Two men were shot.

Nobody died, but that shooting marked the end of peace in Compton. There were four more shootings between black gangs that month.

"The truce lasted longer with some than with others. Now it's to the point where I don't think it's really on with any of them," Brennan said.

"But it will take time for things to heat back up to where it used to be. That's why you had the drop in murders, because it isn't full-scale war between all the different rivalries. Yet."

And even with the return of the violence, the shooters are aiming low or not hitting their targets, Brennan said, as if some hangover from the truce is affecting their aim.

Exactly why the truce seems to be unraveling is difficult to answer. Chief Taylor says the leaders--the OGs or original gangsters who initially brokered the truce--are no longer vocal in calling for peace. Jim Brown, whose organization Amer-I-Can helped bring the gangs together in Compton, could not be reached for comment.

The police chief talks about fighting gangs by increasing anti-gang education in elementary schools, but neither he nor any other city official has come forward with a plan to reinforce the faltering truce.

For Brennan and Ladd, the reasons the peace failed are mapped out on the city's streets. These residential avenues are lined with small, neatly trimmed single-family homes. Most yards are blooming with early flowers and the grass is well kept, like any suburban neighborhood.

But on almost every block is one house that officers point to where sheets or tinting cover windows that look out onto bare dirt yards and where one or two young men loiter out front, plying the drug trade. These are the seeds of trouble, the places where gangs congregate and divide neighborhoods into war zones, Brennan and Ladd say.

Driving down Santa Fe Avenue, they point to the west side, then the east, where rival gangs claim territory. The two sets have been known to shoot at each other across the busy street.

Within four blocks are three more gangs: two black and one Latino. One of the black gangs was edged out of its former drug territory by the Latino gang, Ladd said. The second black gang has been caught in the middle.

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