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.
“Right now, you’re guilty by association,” said Breveard, the 45-year-old treasurer for the Nickerson Gardens housing project. “If one of my kids is on the gang injunction, I make sure that after the function, after they leave, I say, ‘You go to the left, and you go to the right.’ They can’t leave together.”
Parents in Watts also say gang members cannot find a way off the injunction list, because they can’t meet the high standards set by the city — spending 18 months in school or a job, signing a document under the penalty of perjury renouncing membership in a gang and — by far the most important — avoiding police contact for three years. Under the terms of the injunction, police contact doesn’t necessarily mean an arrest; it can mean simply being questioned. Avoiding the LAPD, especially if you live in or near a housing project, is viewed as impossible.
“There’s police all around here. How are you going to avoid them?” asked Thenarse, the high school athlete, who recently lectured a group of kids at Markham Middle School about staying in school. “They come to us. We don’t go to them. We walk outside, and they say, ‘Come here.’ ”
For Thenarse, avoiding trouble also meant avoiding friends, classmates, a few teammates and even his older brothers, at least in public. Although those named in the injunction are allowed in theory to assemble outside gang territory, perhaps by going to a movie or a bowling alley, in practice such an activity is almost impossible, since they must all travel separately or face a stop by police on their way in and out of the neighborhood.
“It’s not really dangerous, but it’s miserable,” he said. “You’re all by yourself. You can’t hang with your own brother outside. It’s like prison, man.”
Prosecutors and police alike say that the gang injunction imposed on the Bounty Hunters, the gang that operates in and around Nickerson Gardens, led to a 53 percent decrease in major crimes since it was imposed in December 2003. The other gang injunction in Watts, which targets the Grape Street Crips, became permanent only in May.
Assistant City Attorney Vranicar, whose boss has added 18 gang injunctions since his election in 2001, said the court orders have finally brought stability to communities throughout Los Angeles, neutralizing the ability of gang members to assemble in ways that intimidate their neighbors. Vranicar also said he sees no need to lower the standard for escaping a gang injunction, even as he confirmed that no one has ever exercised its renunciation provisions.
“Certainly, individuals have been dropped because they were in prison, or because they later showed up dead by the time the thing got processed,” he said. “But as far as taking advantage of the renunciation provision? No.”
Even so, Meraz and Vranicar are in talks over ways of temporarily lifting the injunctions in Watts for limited periods of time. Because gang members are barred under the law from appearing together in public, they face the threat of arrest if they appear at certain tutoring sessions, basketball games or other recreation programs that take place within the gang-injunction boundaries, Meraz said.
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“I said, how can these kids take advantage of these programs if they ?can’t even associate?” he said. “If they ?go in a classroom together and they really want to learn and they’re sitting side by ?side, then bam! — they’re in violation of ?the injunction.”
Anger over the injunction process boiled over on March 13 at a community meeting attended by Bratton. Parents like Breveard railed at them for having no solution for getting kids off the lists once they were added. They voiced frustration that their neighbors have so little concrete information on the process, saying the injunction was designed in a way to consume more and more children.
Thenarse echoed all of those feelings. Yet in an odd way, the fear of the injunction — and his internal drive and determination — motivated him to focus on his dreams of school, football, possibly even playing for the NFL. Asked what he expected college to be like, he couldn’t say, other than different from here.
“It will be a challenge, an adventure,” he said.