Last week the L.A. City Attorney’s Office filed a new gang injunction targeting 31 members of the Rolling 60s Crips, a South Los Angeles gang that has allegedly been responsible for more than 30 murders between 2001 and 2002. The injunction is the city’s 17th to date — and it’s either a very good idea or a very bad idea, depending upon whom you ask.
Functionally, a gang injunction works like a restraining order. But, instead of barring contact with an individual, it bans certain activities by particular groups. Under this newest one, members of the Rolling 60s Crips can be arrested for possessing a pager or a cell phone, dressing in gang attire, gathering in public —- or for driving in numbers of two or more into areas claimed by rival gangs. A violation of these provisions is a misdemeanor carrying a penalty of up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
Fans of the policy, like Dr. George Tita, an assistant professor of criminology at UC Irvine who analyzes gang-violence reduction strategies for RAND, contend that injunctions lower crime. “We need both the carrot and the stick to get kids to move away from violence,” says Tita. “An injunction is one form of stick that works, at least in the short term.”
Critics, like associate director of the Southern California ACLU Elizabeth Schroeder, say that making normally legal activities illegal carries large risks in terms of civil liberties. “For example,” says Schroeder, “to say that this or that group no longer has the right to use a perfectly legal device like a cell phone sets a rather dangerous precedent.” Schroeder also thinks the new injunction’s prohibition against gang dress is far too broad. “That kind of subjective standard opens the door to abuse.”
Allowing wealthy teenagers at Crossroads private school to sport gangster chic, but arresting homeboys in South L.A. for wearing “gang attire” suggests a slippery legal slope, say Schroeder and others. However, a spokesperson for the city attorney’s gang unit sees no such ambiguities. “It’s not that hard,” he says. “The Rolling 60s Crips dress all in blue. We know that.”
“Ridiculous,” snorts Bo Taylor, one of South L.A.’s best-known gang-intervention workers. “Right now, Crips wear red, Bloods wear blue, everybody wears everything. These people don’t have a clue. Look,” Taylor adds, “a lot of people’s lives are being destroyed by all this killing. So we want police to be active. We want them to be visible. But when there was an injunction in Venice, the police were picking up people who hadn’t been involved in gangs in years.”
LAPD Commander Richard Roupoli of South Bureau believes that, under the new LAPD, officers will show more restraint. “It’s unlikely that somebody’s going to be arrested on the basis of clothing,” he says. “And, if somebody’s picked up for the wrong reason, it still has to get past the watch commander, the city attorney and a judge.”
Homeboy Industries head Father Greg Boyle says that enlightened enforcement is key. “For an injunction to work well, it really requires a police department that we don’t currently have,” he says. “But, we’re getting there under [LAPD Chief] Bratton. While under Bernard Parks, you never wanted an injunction because it could only lead to abuse.”
Ideally, says Boyle, such sanctions help violence-wracked communities protect themselves without demonizing their law-breaking adolescents. “In the same way that a restraining order allows a woman to be clear about what she will and won’t allow in terms of her safety,” he says. “It allows the community to be clear — to say, ‘Here’s what we’re no longer going to allow you to do. We’re happy to help you do a lot of other things. But you can’t do this anymore.”
Injunctions can also benefit the gang members themselves, according to Boyle. “I mean, eight minutes after one was filed here on the Eastside, I had kids in my office saying, ‘Get me a job.’ At its best,” he says, “an injunction creates a kind of vigilant heat that moves kids toward the light.”