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Politics in the Street 

The debate that matters on gang injunctions

Wednesday, May 23 2001
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Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

Some flash signs, others sell drugs, and many inspire fear. Here, in a 10-block area along Alvarado Street in Westlake, some 18th Street gang members are reclaiming their turf amid the fortunetellers and swap-meet-style shops that used to be movie theaters.

Once targeted by a court injunction that kept them from congregating, 18th Streeters are bucking for control of the low-income and mostly immigrant streets of Westlake and Pico-Union. Some business owners said that street toughs have become more brazen since the injunction was lifted in the wake of the Rampart police scandal.

“They [gang members] feel like they are calling the shots now,” said an Alvarado business owner from El Salvador who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “There wasn’t much gang activity when the injunction was in place. But after the Rampart scandal, gang members feel more free to act.”

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Gang injunctions have become a political issue in the debates between Los Angeles mayoral candidates James K. Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa. Hahn, the city attorney, believes that injunctions are a key weapon in undermining the power of street gangs, while Villaraigosa says that enforcement tactics should also include social programs to help steer young people away from criminal life.

View from the hood

Hahn stresses that his work in bringing injunctions against some of the nation’s largest and toughest gangs gives him the edge when it comes to reducing crime. On the other hand, Villaraigosa, who went from a street-fighting Boyle Heights youth to speaker of the state Assembly, believes that young people can overcome the lure of crime with good counseling and a second chance.

Out on the streets, far from the campaign rhetoric, the debate takes on a different tone.

About a dozen residents of the Westlake and Pico-Union areas, which are part of the territory covered by the Rampart station, said that the injunctions may not have solved the gang problem, but they did manage to keep some of the most troublemaking gang members in line.

“From one to 10, I give them [the injunctions] a 10,” said a Westlake resident who asked not to be identified. “We are the ones who are living here and the ones that saw that things were much calmer back then.”

It was a mistake to lift the 18th Street injunction, said an Alvarado business owner. “In my country, police are corrupt, but criminals fear them. Not here,” he said, indicating some men outside his window who were making signs at cars. “The next mayor should definitely enforce stricter laws against them.”

Twelve injunctions have been filed by Hahn’s office since 1987, with the latest court order enacted three weeks ago against the Pacoima Project Boys. In September 1999, the City Attorney’s Office asked a judge to lift the injunctions against the 18th Street Gang in Pico-Union and Jefferson Park because of fear that they were tainted by the testimony of corrupt Rampart police officers.

Villaraigosa is not totally against injunctions, but he believes their effectiveness is overstated. They are useful police tactics, but fail to help break the constant cycle of youths joining gangs, said spokesman Ace Smith. He added that Hahn uses the lawsuits as a political ploy to scare the electorate into voting for him.

“They [injunctions] are one of those things that sound very tough, but how do we start getting to the root causes?” said Smith, who criticized injunctions for having only short-term effects on a community. “And the greatest short-term effect is that it creates good press conferences.”

Throughout California, 34 injunctions have been ordered against gangs, with more planned in the city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles County and several cities, such as Pasadena, also have used them. Marty Vranicar, head of the City Attorney’s gang unit, said their usefulness far outweighs the criticism. They are especially good at making life hard for drug dealers.

“Obviously, to run a narcotics operation you need to have a number of individuals out there: the seller, the person who is doing the lookout, and the person who is picking up the dope and the money,” Vranicar said. “You can have a large impact if you can tie those people together and prevent them from being out there.”

Injunctions also diminish a gang’s intimidating presence by keeping it from gathering in large numbers, Vranicar added. Residents are more likely to stand up to street toughs when no fellow gang members are around to help them out.

“The difference between one person trying to hassle a citizen and three gang members hassling the citizen is a quantum leap,” Vranicar said. “The gang gets its power from its ability to intimidate a community; their collective presence is what can really bring an oppressive clout over the community.”

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