The police chief and new mayor are calling for another gang injunction in the city of Inglewood. Why, since reportedly, there has not been a recent spike in gang-related activity, crime or violence in Inglewood?
Those familiar with gang injunctions, including law enforcement, know that such injunctions are as problematic as they are helpful. Unless properly and fairly implemented, they can–and have–violated the rights of innocent suspects, which renders the injunction oppressive rather than ameliorative. The net effect is merely causes gangs to infiltrate other locations.
Often politically driven, gang injunctions are invoked in isolation and are not sufficiently linked to broader, long-term implications. As already mentioned, many injunctions are shortsighted, oppressive and do not actually reduce violence. The following definitions and a quick look at some gang injunctions are provided to aid public understanding of this important issue. These definitions are embraced by law enforcement throughout California.
“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 that a gang member committed the offense. “Gang member” is defined as 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, most injunctions forbid named gang members to engage in a number of activities, including congregating in groups, violating curfew, possessing a pager or cell phone, etc.
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 injunctions serve as models for other cities.
In recent years, several gang injunctions were in effect in L.A. County, including one by the La City Attorney’s Gang Unit against 18th Street in Pico-Union, two focusing on public housing sites-Nickerson Gardens and the “Jungle” in South Central Los Angeles. As with 18th Street, injunctions are often placed in areas surrounded by middle-class communities, or facing gentrification with intense political pressure. Since the mid-1980s, there have been approximately forty injunctions throughout Los Angeles.
Anti-gang laws often result in “gang enhancement,” which significantly increases penalties imposed for a gang-related offense. Gang enhancement laws can impose sentences which far exceed criminal law penalties for the same offense. In California, youth can face a life sentence in an adult prison for a residential robbery if it is deemed to have been “gang-related.”
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. Juvenile strikes include offenses such as armed robbery and several others which count as adult strikes. Gang affiliation is also a basis for transferring a youth to an adult court. Under California’s Proposition 21, by merely alleging that an offense is “gang related,” prosecutors may have the power to file charges against a 14-year-old directly in an adult court without the generally required fitness hearing before a judge.
An (unidentified) defense attorney intoned, “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.”
Ultimately, primary responsibility for reducing gang violence rests with community residents, working with others, including the police, on strategic, sustainable solutions. Places like Inglewood, contemplating gang injunctions, should heed the attorney’s admonition and focus more on gang prevention and intervention as the most effective methods, not only for control but arguably, the eventual elimination of gang violence.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.