Crime is rising across the nation in various cities and counties. Locally, here in the County of Los Angeles, the City of Compton, no stranger to gang violence is also seeing a spike in violent crime. While its not clear what or how Sheriff Villanueva is addressing this issue, I reached out to Chief Cecil Rhambo, who was the first full time commanding officer assigned to command the Compton Sheriff’s Station.
In just over three years, he led a successful decrease in crime, opened the path for greater economic growth, instilled such a significant trust in the Sheriff’s Department that the voters passed an ordinance that requires elimination of the Sheriff’s Contract to be put forth by a vote of the people, rather than 3 votes of the Compton City Council.
Rhambo left such a lasting and personal impression on the citizens and city hall that he was, 13 years later, recruited and selected unanimously to be the Administrative head of the city as the City Manager. In that role, even more economic and employment progress continued and he led the way into completing the UPS distribution center opening as well as brining in the city’s first and only In and Out Burger at Central Ave and the 91 freeway.
The following is my interview with Chief Rhambo:
2UrbanGirls: Chief, first, thank you for participating in this discussion. If I recall, many of the residents in Compton were opposed to the Sheriff’s merger back in late 2000, can you discuss the challenges you faced upon taking the helm?
Rhambo: It’s my pleasure. Yes, the decision was polarizing and the politics were volatile. I was a Lieutenant heading the Asian Crime Task Force when the Sheriff asked me to interview as a Captain candidate for Compton. My parents moved to Compton back in 1950, at the end of WWII, and the Sheriff knew that I had community ties, as well as a strong community engagement approach to law enforcement. Once selected, I had to quickly work to engage the community, the City Council, assess crime trends and work to ensure a smooth transition between some former Compton Police Officers who were now Sheriff’s Deputies as well as an entire professional staff who was resentful of the merger. I spent many long days and nights working with, meeting, and listening to all of the community stakeholders. We were able to work through hurt feelings, training issues, protocol changes, a station renovation, employee transfers, as well as addressing the crime issues at that time.
2UrbanGirls: Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s Compton was still dealing with the aftermath of the Crack Cocaine and PCP epidemic that literally decimated many of our Black inner cities. Not to mention, even back then the Sheriff’s Department had a reputation of brutalizing Black communities and not being very engaging.
Rhambo: Having grown up in both Compton and South Central Los Angeles, coupled with the 20 years of experience (at that time) I had in the Sheriff’s Department, I was determined that; the community would be treated humanely, constitutionally, and we would engage our constituents by building key relationships.
Additionally, what many folks don’t know, is that literally across the street in the unincorporated part of Willowbrook, which is separated from Compton only by streets, such as 124th, Mona, and El Segundo, the deputies are mandated to work as 2 person police cars for officer safety reasons, while the Compton contract only pays for single deputy patrol units. In the minds of deputy personnel as well as their families, Compton was no less as dangerous a place to patrol.
My challenge was to let the community know that we were going eliminate the myths and rumors that we would simply “brutalize” the community into “safety” and, conversely, let the deputies know that the community could be safely patrolled by single deputy units and that the community would embrace them. Community engagement was key.
I directed our community relations staff to establish a youth center, boxing program, and after school “Safe Haven” that offered tutoring, computer lab and a host of other youth engagement programs in the city. It still exists over 20 years later at the corner of Alameda and Elm st.
2UrbanGirls: Many police agencies have such centers, can you expand on more details on your community engagement?
Rhambo: Yes, the youth center is only one part of community engagement. I personally spent a lot of time actually in the community, walking foot-beats, engaging WITH gang members, attending local churches, schools, and literally jogging through some of the most traditionally violent areas in the City. If a murder occurred, I would visit with the family, offer a member of our on-call clergy council, bring food as well as field deputies to let them know that even if it was a gang related loss, we were empathetic and would do what we could to be supportive as well as bring the perpetrators to justice. We also assisted and participated in Peace Marches, we helped organizers during prayer vigils, and we worked with mothers of gang violence victims and sent them out as volunteer grief counselors at murder scenes. At the time, these practices were unheard of and now I realize we were putting forth “progressive” practices before the term existed. Indeed, they are now a common practice.
2UrbanGirls: Wow, that’s interesting, I heard about your work with the former incarcerated gang members such as the Cease Fire Committee and LA City’s GYRD program. What was that like?
Rhambo: There are many groups in the inner city that really want to make a change and a difference. Some have spent many years of their lives behind bars and or engaging in behaviors that they realize only destroy our communities. Many of them now have children and grandchildren and they don’t want to them to be lost to these streets.
In working with these groups, we were able to be a strong collaborative that helped stop the retaliatory violence that so often follows a gang incident. It wasn’t uncommon for retaliatory shootings to result in the death of innocents caught in the crossfire. I found that working collaboratively with these groups as well as Faith Based and other Civic organizations helped bring about positive dialogue, solutions, and community cohesiveness concerning these issues.
Another collaborative that I worked with was then LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, Civil Rights Attorney Connie Rice and local elected officials on the Watts Gang Task Force and GRYD (lagryd.org). These programs brought law enforcement, local government and the community together to lower overall crime, foster community harmony, and reduced at risk youth involvement in gangs.
Again, working together WITH elected officials and having positive partnerships with local Chiefs of Police rather than finger pointing on a regional problem is a best practice on how to solve complex societal issues.
2UrbanGirls: Solving crimes is also something that some have stated the Sheriff’s Department falls short on. Can you address this concern?
Rhambo: I’ve heard that in the past. When I was the Captain at Compton station and later as the Division Chief over the area, we focused on the violent crime solve rate. Again, the solve rate is directly tied to community engagement and trust. I’ve been doing this job over 35 years, and when a gang shooting occurs, more often than not, the members either know who did the shooting or they hit the streets and find out. Witnesses are often reluctant to testify because they sometimes live in the areas with the perpetrators, who intimidate them. This even occurs in the hallways of the courts during trial.
Working with the District Attorney’s office of victim’s assistance program as well as working with other governmental agencies to provide relocation services and assistance is also helpful.
To further emphasize the importance of community engagement, recently I was out of town visiting family and was called from someone in Birmingham, Alabama about a murder suspect that was being tracked down by a rival gang in West Compton and the Willowbrook area. When I asked why he called me, he told me that since I left the Sheriff’s Department, no one had established the level of trust and communication with the community that I had, and he didn’t know who else to contact. I was able to verify much of his information with the LASD and offer a few pieces of information that, I hoped proved helpful to the case.
Again, mutual trust and engagement between law enforcement and the community can result in an overall safer community.
2UrbanGirls: What else, in your experience, can you point to that is or has been effective in addressing rises in violent crime?
Rhambo: Well, I don’t think you have to be a college professor or even a medical professional to understand that COVID-19 has had a significant influence on the rise in crime. Lack of jobs, housing, and the closure of the Courts have led to a lack of perpetrators being held accountable for the commission of crimes. As you know, its not uncommon for retaliatory behaviors to manifest themselves in the community if there isn’t some form of legal accountability as an option. If you shot my cousin last week and now I see you at the park, depending on the circumstances, something is bound to occur.
Now that the court system is back in session, this will help remove some of our most violent offenders off the street. The Re opening of the economy, jobs, schools and the expansion of supportive and bridge housing should bear fruit for the community soon.
Additionally, the Federal DOJ can assist by bringing in a Project Safe Neighborhoods program. Since 2001, The Department of Justice (DOJ) Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) program is a nationwide initiative that brings together federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials, prosecutors, community-based partners, and other stakeholders to identify the most pressing violent crime problems in a community and develop comprehensive solutions to address them.
PSN is coordinated by the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices (USAOs) in the 94 federal judicial districts throughout the 50 states and U.S. territories. PSN is customized to account for local violent crime problems and resources. An important aspect of PSN is to incorporate research and analysis to inform the decision-making process on the most effective violence reduction strategies. However, I’m not sure the Sheriff is keenly aware of this program due to his limited experience in the Sheriff’s department prior to being elected. I have worked with PSN in the past and would support a discussion on implementation to address violent crime trends in the jurisdictions patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department if needed.
2UrbanGirls: Thank you for sharing some insights on addressing violent crime, not just in Compton but throughout the County. Is there anything you’d like to add to conclude our conversation?
Rhambo: Yes, COVID is still a reality and over 4 million people worldwide have succumb to this horrible virus. Indeed over 600,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID, including my biological father. Los Angeles is beginning to see a 4th wave. With that in mind, community engagement is more vital now than ever. Establishing and maintaining those relationships with key community stakeholders, that can sometimes even be the “shot callers” themselves of the local gangs, will be key in stopping bloodshed, further social unrest, and foster community cohesiveness. We have a common enemy, and it is COVID, we can’t let that turn the community against itself. I urge your readers to please follow safety protocols, wear your masks in crowds, keep washing your hands and please, please get vaccinated.