The Strong Arm of the Law

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

But prosecutors, especially in Los Angeles County, have embraced the concept of anti-gang injunctions. The L.A. County District Attorney's Office operates a unit called SAGE (Strategy Against Gang Environment), whose aim is "taking back Los Angeles' streets from gangs and the accompanying problems of drugs and violence. Key to SAGE's success are civil injunctions, which drastically reduce drug dealing, violence, graffiti and loitering."

Another plus for prosecutors is that in civil cases, their burden of proof -- a preponderance of evidence -- isn't as steep as the "reasonable doubt" burden in the criminal arena. Finally, the process is quicker, without delays that mar so many criminal cases.

But using injunctions against a certain group raises many questions, including: In a legal sense, what matters more -- someone's right to associate with whomever he or she wants, or the right to feel safe in your own neighborhood?

Another of the seven criteria: Association.
Another of the seven criteria: Association.
Criteria No. 5: Tattoos.
Criteria No. 5: Tattoos.

The issue came to the forefront last spring, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 6-3 vote that a Chicago anti-gang ordinance was illegal. Passed in 1992, the ordinance had authorized police to disperse a group of two or more people "loitering with no apparent purpose" in a public place if the officer "reasonably believes" at least one loiterer was a gang member.

Police didn't have to prove their targets ever had been convicted of a crime, had committed any kind of crime or were planning to break the law.

If the suspected gangbangers didn't leave the area as ordered, police then could arrest them -- and did. Chicago cops arrested 43,000 people before defense attorneys in 1995 challenged the ordinance's constitutionality.

"It matters not," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his majority opinion, "whether the reason that a gang member and his father, for example, might loiter near Wrigley Field was to rob an unsuspecting fan, or just to get a glimpse of Sammy Sosa leaving the ballpark. If their purpose is not apparent to a nearby police officer, she may -- indeed she 'shall' -- order them to disperse."

Justice Antonin Scalia countered in his dissent, "I would trade my right to loiter any day in exchange for the liberation of my neighborhood."

Undaunted by the high court's recent ruling, authorities in Southern California continue to use injunctions in their anti-gang strategies. Prosecutors there express confidence that those injunctions will continue to pass legal muster.

One reason, says City of Phoenix attorney Phil Haggerty, is that -- unlike the sweeping Chicago ordinance -- the California injunctions are narrowly tailored toward specific gangs and individuals.

"California is our guideline," Haggerty says. "They use fairly small geographic areas that are more reasonably enforceable, and both of those elements are helping an injunction pass legal muster. The California Supreme Court said their test case was okay, and that gives us some degree of comfort."

Haggerty is referring to the 1997 case of Gallo v. Acuna, in which the California high court voted 3-2 to uphold an injunction in the San Jose neighborhood -- an "urban war zone," the government called it -- of Rocksprings.

"The state has not only a right to 'maintain a decent society,' but an obligation to do so," the majority opinion in the Gallo case said in part. "In the public nuisance context, the community's right to security and protection must be reconciled with the individual's right to expressive and associative freedom. Reconciliation begins with the acknowledgement that the interests of the community are not invariably less important than the freedom of individuals."

But others say the public nuisance laws and the injunctions that spring from them are too broad. In effect, legal scholars have noted, the injunctions unfairly create personal criminal codes for those targeted.

If a gangbanger commits a crime, go ahead and bust him, some legal scholars have argued. But if law enforcers want to argue that pre-emptive injunctions actually put a dent in the gangs' stranglehold on certain neighborhoods, think again.

Surprisingly, the Pasadena, California, police chief agreed with just that analysis after assuming the helm in 1997. He said his city's anti-gang civil injunctions had failed, calling them "an intellectual substitute for responsible public policy."

University of Southern California professor Cheryl Maxson -- who completed a study in 1995 about an anti-gang civil injunction in the Inglewood area of Los Angeles -- says, "There is no credible evidence of the success of this strategy to date."

Maxson says crime actually increased in the target neighborhood she studied after the injunction took hold. Other studies suggest that an anti-gang injunction covering one area may cause crime rates to rise in adjoining neighborhoods (after the gangs move operations).

In May 1997, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California issued a 48-page report on another Los Angeles-area anti-gang injunction. Titled "False Premise, False Promise -- The Blythe Street Gang Injunction and Its Aftermath," it concluded that crime rates, police calls for service and felony arrests actually had increased over a four-year period.

In a letter at that time to District Attorney Gil Garcetti and City Attorney James Hahn, ACLU of Southern California executive director Ramona Ripston noted:

"Not only did the injunction not lead to a reduction in violent crime and drug trafficking . . . but crime increased enormously in the LAPD report district for that area. In our experience and we're sure in yours, it's not uncommon for tactics that are conceived with the best and most noble intentions to prove to have effects that are diametrically opposite of what was intended. We believe that is what has happened here."

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