On a ridealong in Compton a few days before Christmas, L.A. Sheriff's Lt. Josh Stahl picked up speed and swung his patrol car around the corner. Stahl unbuckled his seat belt along the way and prepared to make a quick exit.
We were chasing another patrol car that Stahl had just seen pull over a motorist in the distance. The car, a rundown brown sedan, had tinted windows and a broken tail light.
"Make sure you always know where you are," Stahl cautioned, pointing out the intersection before he jumped out of the car. "You can step out, but stand behind the car door," he said.
The scene was over before it had started: the sedan pulled away from the curb and Stahl jogged back to the car.
"It was a little old lady," he said. "The guys gave her a warning, told her to get the tail light fixed."
And so went my Compton ridealong: a probable asthma attack at a gas station, a gunshots call that turned out to be nothing, and an unruly, drunk man at a house who suddenly got cooperative when we showed up. There was a moment when it seemed the night might offer a taste of Compton's fabled mean streets: Stahl spotted a flotilla of California Highway Patrol cars hogging the roadway in what looked like a low-speed chase. Nope: at the center of the gaggle was a large sleigh carrying a giant St. Nick, destined for a parade the next day.
"This is a slow night," Stahl admitted. "But the 'bad streets of Compton' is not real."
At least not anymore. For instance, since 2000, the homicide rate in the city of Compton is down by half; now it's at its second lowest point since the 1960s. That's why L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, in his Wednesday press conference discussing 2012 crime stats in the department's patrol areas, chose to highlight Compton and its neighboring areas. These areas mirror a trend in the city of L.A.: massively declining crime rates.
The figures released Wednesday say the sheriff's 42 contract cities and 130 unincorporated communities saw a 4.2 percent uptick in Part I crimes (the ones most people have heard of, like burglary, robbery, rape, and murder). That bump emerges in a wider context: a 16 percent decrease in such crimes over the last 5 years.
More important, Baca said, is the actual crime rate in the sheriff's patrol area. At 246.15 crimes per 10,000 people, it's the second lowest in 42 years.
"This is very, very astonishingly important," Baca said. "The quality of the neighborhood when it's under 300 Part I crimes per 10,000, people start walking the streets again. People start participating in parks. People can walk to the store."
Still, some places, like Compton at 379.57 crimes per 10,000, remain below that magic number (though it's down 15 percent from five years ago). The glowing statistics also followed a frightening incident Tuesday night not far from Compton, in neighboring Lynwood, which has also seen a major crime drop.
Two sheriff's deputies, Laura Perales and Chris Gomez, were on patrol when they heard gunfire. Finding a man shot on the ground, and a car speeding away, the deputies chased the vehicle.
"When the rifle was pointed at us and we saw muzzle flashes," Gomez said, the two realized that someone in the car was firing an AK-47 at them. The deputies weren't hit, and others took the suspects into custody later in the night after crashing the car - and in the case of one suspect, who ran away, a foot search.
Perales and Gomez said nobody had ever shot at them with an assault rifle before, but they'd heard from colleagues who'd dodged those weapons.
"On a daily basis, any deputy that's in our area runs a risk of running into something like this," Gomez said.
Other bad news: a jump in deputy-involved shootings. There were 49 last year, compared to 37 in 2011 (the shootings that involved "hits" are similar: 35 in 2012; 32 in 2011).
Baca said the AK-47 shooting the department maintains was gang-related shows that L.A. is still a gang violence capital. But it's come a long way, mostly because of the successful community policing, Baca said.
In Compton, station Captain Diane Walker remembered a change in the atmosphere while she worked in neighboring Lynwood. In the late 1990's, Walker said, Compton seemed to come closer to that tipping point the sheriff talked about, where people felt safe to move around and go about their daily lives without fear.
"And not just only with the people, the asthetics," Walker said. " The city has put a lot of resources into beautification, and cleanup, and graffiti removal."
As for Compton's mean reputation that gained steam early in the hip hop era, Walker said, the people who live there don't perpetuate it. "If they visited Compton, they'd see that it's a wonderful place to be."