By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Despite the state Supreme Court's decision, the rapidly multiplying injunctions continue to pose a wide host of civil rights concerns, particularly given that thus far they have been used only in black and Latino communities. The breadth of the behaviors prohibited by gang injunctions gives police probable cause to stop named gang members almost every time they see them in the neighborhood. "The orders are so broad," says Alex Ricciardulli of the L.A. Public Defender's Office, "that every time they detain these people there's going to be something they're doing wrong"; it's nearly impossible notto be in violation. (How long could youget by without associating publicly with friends, carrying a pager, visiting friends without their landlord's written consent, or venturing from home at night?) The assessment of one police officer interviewed on the street in Pico-Union will do little to assuage the fears of civil libertarians: "It gives us a little more freedom to work on gang members. We have a lot more probable cause to stop them . . . If I see a couple of gangsters together, then I have a whole lot more leeway. It gives me the freedom to be more creative in my arrests."
Because injunctions result from civil suits, standards of proof are not nearly as stringent as they would be in criminal cases. Like Arturo, a number of the people named in the Pico-Union court order have never been convicted of a crime and are included only because police officers and community members (whose testimony is under seal, and therefore not subject to scrutiny) have identified them as gang members. It is certainly worrisome when the generally unchallenged statements of a handful of cops can alter the course of a young man or woman's life so drastically. Gang members assert that the police regularly lie about them and set them up. Given that one of the officers who submitted testimony for the injunction has since been arrested for stealing three kilos of cocaine, their fears are perhaps not entirely unjustified. And the alleged gang members named, who are generally not well informed about the niceties of civil procedure, are not entitled to court-appointed counsel, as they would be if they were charged with a crime -- though the L.A. Public Defender's Office has been fighting, thus far unsuccessfully, to change that.
On the other hand, law enforcement's frustration with gangs like 18th Street is understandable. "Many times we know that gang members are engaging in narcotics activity," Officer Mark Cohan said in an affidavit, "however, we are unable to locate any contraband due to the gang's size and sophistication in their sales methods." Many of the clauses in the injunction prohibit otherwise legal activities that gang members use to evade arrest; lookouts do whistle to alert dealers of approaching cops, gangbangers do hop fences and climb trees to get places where police cars can't follow, and gang members in some areas (though not in Pico-Union) have been known to demand entrance to private apartments and intimidate residents into telling police they were there all along. Very few neighbors are willing to testify against gangsters who live right down the block, who know where they live.
And generally speaking, it's hard to find many people who sympathize with gangbangers. While the hysterical rhetoric employed by many politicians and journalists (most of whom set foot in neighborhoods like Pico-Union only when some particularly gruesome or picturesque crime has been committed, and who, based on that experience, assuredly speak of gangs as "occupying armies" establishing "reigns of terror") overstates the situation by quite a bit, gangs do make communities a whole lot less livable. One woman who lives in the same building as a few 18th Streeters puts it simply: "It's very dangerous. We're afraid. We have children." Bullets fired by nervous 14-year-olds rarely go where they're supposed to; the presence of dealers implies the presence of addicts, who are generally desperate and often violent; and while many residents come to an uneasy "I don't bother them, they don't bother me" truce with the gangsters on their block, most are anxious when they're around.
IT MIGHT BE EASIER, OF COURSE, TO GET PAST THE civil rights issues if it could be shown that gang injunctions are truly effective. Malcolm Klein, former director of USC's Social Science Research Institute, says that there is still too little research on the subject to draw firm conclusions, but he nonetheless has his doubts. Two studies have been conducted thus far: his colleague Maxson's look at the Inglewood injunction and an ACLU report on a 1993 court order against the Blythe Street gang in Panorama City. Maxson's study was, Klein says, "pretty discouraging." The ACLU report found that the Blythe Street injunction had not significantly reduced crime in the targeted area and that it had caused crime to rise in neighboring communities. But Klein notes that that study was "fairly minimal" in scope, relying entirely on aggregated crime statistics.
In the absence of solid evidence in their favor, Klein is skeptical about the efficacy of injunctions as used thus far, grouping them with other "suppression approaches" -- including Daryl Gates' infamous Operation Hammer, in which 1,453 alleged gangsters were arrested in one night, and the STEP Act, which criminalized gang membership. All these techniques, he says, tend to backfire by further alienating gang members and unintentionally tightening the bonds that hold gangs together. At the same time, suppression techniques fundamentally fail to address the underlying causes of gangs and gang violence, which he says include a segregated minority population, lots of young people with few employment opportunities, weak parental control and inadequate social services. "That's the recipe for gangs," he says. "The problem is not the gang, it's the community, and until you deal with that, you're going to continue to have gangs and other kinds of problems."
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