Gang injunctions are again in the spotlight: Echo Park in Los Angeles and the city of Inglewood are both in court this week regarding gang injunctions-and even the Los Angeles Times is questioning their effectiveness, (LA Times, 08/18/13). LA’s new City Attorney Mike Feuer is seeking a gang injunction in Echo Park and most of the city of Inglewood is already under these injunctions.
Critics argue Echo Park is long past its peak gang activity time and an injunction is unnecessary at this time, do what’s the City Attorney’s rationale? (Two years ago, the City of Inglewood sought a gang injunction even though reportedly, gang activity was actually down.) Once an injunction is imposed, it is permanent. In Los Angeles, 7,000 have been named and served with notices. To date, 82 have sought removal but only 10 of these 7,000 have been removed from the “gang” list. Los Angeles civil rights attorney, Olu Orange, has successfully sought federal rulings because “state judges overwhelmingly support gang injunctions.” He says, “You can’t break the law to enforce it.”
Those familiar with gang injunctions, including law enforcement, know they are as problematic as they are helpful. Unless properly and fairly implemented, injunctions can, and do, violate the rights of innocent suspects, rendering the injunction oppressive, not helpful. Arguably, injunctions oft times merely cause gangs to infiltrate other locations.
At times, politically driven, injunctions are invoked in virtual isolation and are not sufficiently linked to their broader, long-term implications. Also, they can be shortsighted, oppressive and do not actually reduce violence. The following definitions and a look at some gang injunctions are offered to help the reader better understand this important issue. These definitions are officially embraced by law enforcement throughout California:
“A criminal street gang” is defined as an organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, which 1) has continuity of purpose, 2) seeks a group identity, 3) has members who individually or collectively engage in, or have engaged in, a pattern of criminal activity. “Gang related crime”: a crime is gang-related if the suspect or the victim is a known member of a gang or there is reliable information indicating a gang member committed the offense. “Gang member”: anyone who 1) actually participates in any gang with knowledge that its members engage in, or have engaged in, a pattern of criminal gang activity and 2) willingly promotes, furthers or assists in any felonious criminal conduct by members of a gang.
An individual is identified as a gang member based on certain criteria, including the following: admits gang membership or association; is observed to associate on a regular basis with known gang members; has tattoos indicating gang membership; wears gang clothing, symbols, etc. to identify with a specific gang; is in a photograph with known gang members and/or uses gang-related handguns; name is on a gang document, hit list or gang-related graffiti. A judge issues the injunction in the form of a restraining order against specific gang members of a particular gang. As mentioned earlier, gang injunctions are permanent, although they are described entirely by the police.
Los Angeles first experimented with gang injunctions in the early 1980s in Pomona, West Covina and West Los Angeles. However, the injunction against the Playboy Gangster Crips in 1987 was the first civil abatement strategy. Los Angeles County gang injunctions continue to serve as models for other cities throughout the nation. In recent years, the growing list of gang injunctions in Los Angeles included those against 18th Street in Pico-Union and two focusing on public housing sites in Watts and South Central Los Angeles. As with 18th Street, injunctions are often in areas surrounded by middle-class communities, or facing gentrification, which can trigger intense political pressure.
Anti-gang laws often result in “gang enhancement,” that significantly increase penalties imposed for a gang-related offense. Gang enhancement laws can impose sentences which far exceed criminal law penalties for the same offense. Presumptions about gang affiliation also have severe consequences under the state’s Three Strikes Law intended for adults. Proposition 21 made any felony committed on behalf of a gang, a strike, and juvenile strikes include offenses which can count as adult strikes. Gang affiliation is also a basis for transferring a youth to an adult court. Under Proposition 21, by merely alleging an offense is gang-related, prosecutors may have the power to file charges against a 14-year-old directly in adult court without a generally required fitness hearing before a judge.
An (unidentified) defense attorney identified a basic problem: “The enthusiastic affirmation of anti-gang injunctions by the courts also adds momentum to the broad movement that advocates criminalizing non-criminal conduct if such conduct is engaged in by people out of favor, justifiably or not, with the social mainstream.”
As mentioned earlier, even “effective” gang injunctions can be misleading and it is quite likely that many gangs under an injunction simply move to another location. Ultimately, primary responsibility for reducing gang violence rests with the community, working with others, including the police, on strategic, sustainable solutions. And it is very important emphasis be as much on prevention as intervention, not only for controlling, but for substantially reducing gang violence.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org