The Strong Arm of the Law

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

However, the ACLU's study did nothing to sour authorities on injunctions.

Like most other states, Arizona has enacted laws aimed at criminal street gangs that enhance sentences for gang-related felonies. Other laws allow for forfeiture of gang assets under the racketeering statutes.

But Arizona's anti-gang laws are broader than most. The laws make it unlawful to lead, participate in or assist a "criminal syndicate," which is defined, put simply, as a group of people who get together to break the law.

One of seven criteria that, according to Arizona law, indicate gang membership: Self-proclamation.
One of seven criteria that, according to Arizona law, indicate gang membership: Self-proclamation.

Under Arizona law, a criminal street gang "means an ongoing formal or informal association of persons whose members or associates individually or collectively engage in the commission, attempted commission, facilitation or solicitation of any felony act, and who has at least one individual who is a criminal street gang member." (Emphasis added.)

That sounds as if Arizona recognizes the possibility of a one-person gang. Not so, says Jim Rizer, chief of the Maricopa County Attorney's gang/repeater offender unit:

"I think that the 'at least one person' must be a criminal street gang member was put there to eliminate some other social groups that get together legally -- for instance, the Elks. Early on, the defense counsel would ask us, 'How do you differentiate a street gang from the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts?' Well, for starters, we have something called a criminal element. . . ."

What effect the proposed Phoenix injunction will have on LCM is uncertain, even to city officials.

"The key is whether the people in the neighborhood will support it," says Phoenix's Phil Haggerty.

"We have had people tell us that they will come through and report things to the police. If they come through on the witness stand, then we'll have a good case. If this works -- and it will take a while before something like this can bear results -- we'll certainly go after other gangs in other areas. But that's up to the police to tell us. The police think this injunction is a worthwhile thing to try, and they are the best judges of that."

Haggerty says there's no doubt that the men listed in the injunction papers are full-fledged LCM members:

"All of them have admitted to the police on at least one occasion that they are members of the gang. They've described to the police when they got 'jumped in' the gang -- that means to become a member. We have photographs of most of them flashing their gang signs. They are identified beyond any reasonable question at all. The real crux of the injunction is the prohibition of association of those people. Now, it will be up to the neighborhood to tell the police if violations are occurring, and to go from there."

ASU law professor Gary Lowenthal says the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has steered away from anti-gang injunctions -- and with good reason.

"They will get a gang member on any felony they can -- riding around in a stolen car and so forth," says Lowenthal. "Once they do, they put gang terms on the probation sentence, and those terms include everything you can possibly pack into an injunction.

"If someone violates [the terms], you're not talking about a slap on the wrist where you get thrown in jail for a few days. Probation violations usually land an offender in prison. It's a much more effective law enforcement tool, without a question of its constitutionality."

Lowenthal says the recently overturned Chicago ordinance "gave police unlimited discretion to do just what the NAACP has been concerned about in south Phoenix. Basically, they see any two black people in the street, they can break them up. This really does deal with difficult constitutional problems. It sweeps up everyone who happens to live in an area and their ability to associate, even when there's no indication of criminal activity.

"But a lot of these neighborhoods are intimidated. The purpose of some Hispanic street gangs is basically to intimidate everyone in the neighborhood. Some people don't have any choice where they live, and they don't feel safe to go outside because of the thugs who are hanging around."

One of Lowenthal's law students wrote a paper last year about anti-gang civil injunctions.

"The civil injunction is not a cure for the gang problem," Linnette Flanigan concluded. "It is not an effective tool to combat the gang problem. The civil injunction's sole purpose is to provide relief to a community under siege. Other remedies, especially social programs targeted at at-risk youth, need to be instituted to rid our streets of this gang violence.

"Unfortunately, in a society of quick fixes, i.e., microwave ovens, fast food, gas 'on the run' and ATM machines, to name a few, the American public is looking for a quick fix to gang violence."

See previous stories in the Hard Core series here.

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address:

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