The Strong Arm of the Law

Police go to great lengths -- including civil injunctions -- to combat gangs. The jury is out on their effectiveness

It is almost 10 p.m. in south Phoenix, and a police gang squad unit spots three black teenagers standing on a street corner. The officers recognize one of the youngsters, a lanky kid wearing several gold chains over his blue Dallas Cowboys jersey.

"He's a banger," one cop says. "Let's go have a chat."

His partner blasts a bright light on the trio, and pulls his cruiser within feet of the boys.

"You guys stay right there," he announces over the metallic speakers.

The youngsters obey.

The officers -- who are both in their late 20s -- step out of their car.

"What are y'all up to?" one of them asks, almost casually.

"Nothin'," the three boys say in unison.

"Oh. Nothing."

He directs a comment to the gang member, 17-year-old Thomas.

"I haven't seen you out in a while, guy. You keeping your nose clean?"

"I ain't been doin' nothin'," Thomas says. "Why you keep hasslin' us?"

"Hasslin' you?" the cop replies, a bit of whimsy in his tone. "We're just doing our jobs. What business could you guys possibly have out here at this hour? You should be home and tucked into bed."

Thomas shakes his head and smirks, as if he's heard this all before.

He has. Thomas is a school dropout whose juvenile record consists of petty crimes and one bust for possessing marijuana -- nothing violent, so far. He's also an admitted member of the Broadway Gangsters. Months earlier, the cops had added Thomas' snapshot to their collection of known gangbangers.

One of the officers asks his computer if any of the boys are on probation, or are wanted on warrants. They're not.

"You and him run in the same gang?" he asks one of the youngsters, gesturing at Thomas.

"No," the 16-year-old says. "I'm not in no gang."

"You mind if we take your pictures?" the cop says to Thomas' buddies.

The pair shrug, but say nothing.

"You got something to hide?" the officer continues.

"No."

The boys finally agree to be photographed, one by one. A few minutes later, the officers tell the boys to go home. The three walk off into the night. Later, the policemen describe how gangs have tormented this working-class neighborhood for years.

"This is a real target area for us," one of the officers says, as they resume their patrol. "One of our big goals is to make it so the people who live here won't be scared of walking around their own streets."

In Arizona, police consider someone a member of a gang if he exhibits one of the following seven criteria: self-proclamation; witness testimony or official statement; written or electronic correspondence; paraphernalia or photography; tattoos; clothing or colors; any indicia of street-gang membership.

With debatable levels of success, authorities here and nationally have been trying to go beyond police gang-squad tactics to make neighborhoods safe.

Around the nation, especially in Southern California, police use court-issued "civil injunctions" to force gangbangers off the streets -- or, at least, to keep them from fraternizing on those streets.

If you're a gang member named in an injunction, or you even associate with gang members in a certain neighborhood -- authorities can tell you where, when, how, and with whom you may associate publicly.

Last weekend, local authorities for the first time incorporated civil injunctions into their anti-gang strategy.

Phoenix police served notice to 13 members of the Los Cuatro Milpas (LCM) gang. A 14th LCM member named is already behind bars. City prosecutors will ask a Superior Court judge to bar the LCM members from "standing, sitting, walking, driving, gathering or appearing anywhere in public view" (in a specified "Target Area") with any other LCM member.

The area borders Seventh and 16th streets, I-17 and Buckeye Road.

". . . The actions of LCM have persisted for years unabated and show no signs of ceasing," assistant city attorney Christina Koehn wrote in her application for the injunction to Maricopa County Superior Court.

"The neighborhood has been robbed of its pride and suffers continuing devastation and deterioration. More fundamentally, an injunction is necessary because of the physical threat LCM poses to residents and visitors of the target area. Tension, fear and intimidation torment the residents every minute of every day."

The requested injunction (an October 20 hearing has been scheduled) also includes several specific restrictions.

Among them:

The 13 LCM members won't be allowed to carry Magic Markers or spray paint cans -- graffiti mar the neighborhood said to be "controlled" by the gang. The injunction would enjoin them from "signaling, whistling, using a walkie-talkie, pager, beeper, or cellular telephone, or otherwise acting as a lookout for another person known to be engaged in a criminal activity in order to warn such person of the approach of a law enforcement officer. . . ."

Anyone convicted of violating the injunction faces up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.

The civil injunction is a controversial law-enforcement technique.

Naysayers contend the anti-gang injunctions allow prosecutors to trample on the constitutional rights of citizens by allowing the police to ignore basic due-process procedures.

Others say that, constitutional or not, the injunctions are ineffective. They argue that some studies suggest that the injunctions are counterproductive.

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