By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCILWOMAN Janice Hahn stepped onto the Jordan High School basketball court a few weeks back for the type of ceremony that would make any hometown proud — a halftime show honoring a student who scored an out-of-town college athletic scholarship. In Watts, a neighborhood of Los Angeles ravaged by a spate of gang killings, the event offered a much-needed respite from a season of searing violence.
“I said how important I thought it was for the community. Then he took the microphone and told how he had turned his life around, how he had faced all these obstacles,” Hahn recalled. “I had people in the stands thank me for being there. His mother was crying.”
For Hahn, the event soon became eye-opening in other ways. One week later, she learned that 17-year-old Ricky Thenarse, a football player heading off to the University of Nebraska, had been struggling to avoid a second, far less prestigious designation: seeing his name added to the gang injunction covering the Jordan Downs housing project.
Thenarse, 17, said he received a letter naming him as part of the injunction — an event that caused him to drastically alter his contact with classmates, teammates and even certain family members. His mother, however, is still not sure if he’s on the list. Representatives of City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo could not confirm Wednesday whether the college-bound senior is on the injunction list. But he identified the boy as a known gang member. Thenarse strongly disagreed, saying he is not a gang member at all.
Gang injunctions — court orders barring gang members from even routine activities, such as gathering in public or using cell phones — now cover 60 square miles of terrain in Los Angeles, including two-thirds of Wilmington, most of Highland Park and an enormous expanse of South Los Angeles. Yet despite the vast stretch of territory, no one has ever successfully removed himself from a gang injunction in the 13 years since the first injunction was approved, in the Blythe Street section of Van Nuys. For those who live in an injunction area, the process is mysterious, even Orwellian. And these days, parents need to know not just whether their own kids are on the list, but which other kids have been labeled gang members and put on the list.
Spurred on by a spate of gang killings over the Christmas season, Hahn and her constituents in Watts have been learning just how quickly the young men of a neighborhood can be added to an injunction and how enormously difficult it is to get them off it. Angry community meetings surrounding the injunctions have even caught the attention of LAPD Police Chief William Bratton, who assigned one of his deputy chiefs to determine whether the city has set an impossible standard for gang members looking for a way out.
“People have come to the realization that there needs to be a means, a mechanism, a process by which someone who genuinely renounces their gang affiliation, and is making a good-faith effort toward rehabilitation, can extricate themselves from the gang life,” said Deputy Chief Gary Brennan. “There needs to be a method by which we can cut them some slack.”
The very fact that Hahn helped spearhead the initiative carries a certain irony. After all, it was her brother, former Mayor James Hahn, who as city attorney pioneered the use of the gang injunctions to halt the bleeding in violence-plagued communities. Weeks before his defeat, the former mayor even proposed a gang injunction covering the entire city — boggling the minds of some law-enforcement experts.
Hahn, while insisting that she has no plan for repealing the injunctions, promised to address the unintended consequences of her brother’s legacy.
“I don’t think there was an exit strategy,” she said.
EVERY TIME A YOUTH IS STOPPED, on foot or in a car, by a police officer — and is accompanied by a gang member — he edges closer and closer to being identified by the LAPD as a gang member himself, authorities say. Even if an arrest doesn’t take place, a youth or young adult may be asked questions at the police station and receive an F.I., or Field Interview Card. Soon afterward, his parent or guardian will hear about it, said Captain Richard Meraz, the commanding officer for the LAPD’s Southeast Station.
“They’ll get a letter from me with my signature saying, ‘Your son was stopped with injuncted gang members, and future associations or involvement or arrests with these individuals will result in them being permanently identified as a gang member,” Meraz said. “It’s a warning, a lighthouse, saying, ‘Straighten them out.’ ”
If the same thing happens five or six more times, a youth will be permanently identified as a gang member and referred to Marty Vranicar, the assistant city attorney who files the paperwork to update the injunction.
Parents have immediately recognized the high stakes. Cheryl Breveard, who serves on the Watts Neighborhood Council, said she has had to take special precautions when troubled children get involved in her Boy Scout troop or take part in the activities of her other organization, Commitment to Fun. When a child involved in gangs has shown up, Breveard has asked their parents to make sure they pick them up at the end of the event.