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Chained Gang 

Can the city attorney's injunction stop Pico-Union's 18th Street Gang?

Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
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Photo by Robert YagerIT HAD BEEN WEEKS SINCE ARTURO VISITED THE Pico-Union neighborhood in which he grew up. It was hard not to see his friends, but going back was risky. Before he moved away a couple of years earlier, the police had been stopping him every time they saw him. Even since then, no matter how careful he was to avoid trouble, things seemed to happen. Just a few months before, an LAPD officer had stopped to photograph and interrogate him while he ate lunch with his young son at a Salvadoran restaurant on Pico. Now, though, he'd started a job nearby, supervising a free-lunch program among the tall palms and graffiti-scarred benches of Alvarado Terrace Park. When he ran into a friend outside the program's one-room office, he agreed to drop by his place after work.

At around 5 that afternoon last July, Arturo found himself standing on the sidewalk outside the wrought-iron gate that surrounds an aging two-story house on Bonnie Brae just north of Pico. The way Arturo tells it, he was worried about his friend's dog, a "real mean" chow named Raider. He didn't know if the dog was loose in the yard behind the house, so instead of walking up to the porch and ringing the bell, he stayed on the sidewalk and whistled.

The next thing he knew, Arturo says, two LAPD officers were getting out of their car behind him. They searched him and, not finding anything, put him in the back of the patrol car. "They took me for a cruise. They wanted information," nothing very specific, Arturo recalls. "They were like, 'You got anything for me?' I said, 'No, just take me in.' I thought it was a joke until they took me to Parker Center."

Arturo had no outstanding warrants. He had never been convicted of a crime. He had done nothing that day that you or I could get in trouble for. Rather, as he puts it, "They arrested me for whistling."

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THE CHAIN OF EVENTS LEADING UP TO ARTURO'S ARREST last summer began in July of 1997, when LAPD officers submitted testimony to the City Attorney's Office that Arturo was one of the most respected gangsters in Pico-Union. He was, they said, a "rent collector" for the Hoover Locos clique of the 18th Street gang, the largest gang in Southern California, and was responsible for collecting about $40 a week in "taxes" from each of the many independent drug dealers who sold their wares in 18th Street's territory. Though he admits to having been a gang member, Arturo denies he was "one of the main guys." But in August of that year, Superior Court Judge William Beverly chose to believe the LAPD, and Arturo became one of 50 gang members covered by what was then the nation's largest gang injunction.

Now, whenever they find themselves in the square mile bounded by Ninth Street and Washington Avenue to the north and south and by the Harbor Freeway and Hoover Street to the east and west, Arturo and 61 others (12 more names have been added to the list) are prohibited from publicly associating with each other or with any other known gang member, from being out after 10 p.m. (or after 8 if they're minors), from carrying pagers or cell phones or screwdrivers or felt-tip pens, from being on private property without prior written permission from the owner, from being within 10 feet of an open beer can, from climbing a tree, from using "abusive language" and, of course, from "whistling, yelling or otherwise signaling . . . to warn another person of an approaching law-enforcement officer," Arturo's alleged sin.

They are also forbidden from a number of activities already proscribed by law, such as possessing drugs, selling drugs, writing graffiti, urinating in public, littering and "loitering for drug-related activity or for the purpose of engaging in graffiti activity." Violating the injunction, and getting caught for it, means a misdemeanor charge that carries a six-month jail term. So a half-year in county lockup for tossing a candy wrapper in the gutter is a real possibility. For someone already on probation or parole, as many gang members are, one violation can mean a few years back in the state pen.

Arturo, after being held at Parker Center for a couple of hours, was released on $500 bail and charged with violating a court order. Five months later, he became the first 18th Streeter to stand trial for such a violation; 15 others had been charged, but all had accepted plea bargains. His case was dismissed on November 30 following a mistrial, a hung jury split 6-6.

THE ARRESTS OF ARTURO AND OTHERS LIKE HIM RAISE several questions. Are gang injunctions -- a favorite tactic of City Attorney James Hahn, whose office has filed seven of them to date -- effective? Have they lessened crime in the targeted areas? And, if so, have the results been sufficiently positive to justify the serious abridgement of civil rights they entail? Hahn insists that while the injunctions are not "a magic bullet to end the gang problem in L.A.," they nevertheless provide communities with the breathing space to "get those resources into the neighborhood, and once you get those established the gang really can't come back and control everything." Thus far, the only thorough analysis of the effectiveness of injunctions, written by Dr. Cheryl Maxson, a professor at USC's Social Science Research Institute, invites serious doubts. In her study of a 1995 Inglewood injunction, an injunction she acknowledged was poorly implemented, Maxson found that crime actually increased in the area. "There is no credible evidence of the success of this strategy to date," she concluded, "yet its use in the Los Angeles region is expanding rapidly."

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