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California moving away from gang injunctions amid criticism, falling crime rates

California moving away from gang injunctions amid criticism, falling crime rates
Los Angeles police officers try to serve a gang injunction. Recent court rulings against the LAPD and other California agencies that use the civil court orders have led some police agencies in the state to alter or rethink the way they use the once-heralded crime control tactic. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Recent court orders prohibiting police in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California from enforcing gang injunctions are prompting law enforcement leaders to rethink how they employ the tool that for decades was considered a critical weapon in the state’s war on gangs.

The shift away from the injunctions, which can severely restrict a suspected gang member’s movements, relationships and even clothing choice in certain neighborhoods, comes amid growing criticism that they are overly broad and often ensnare people who have a tenuous connection to gang life. At the same time, gang crime has sharply declined since its peak in the 1990s, leading some law enforcement officials to question if the court orders are still needed.

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Police in Long Beach stopped enforcing injunctions against roughly 850 suspected gang members in March, just days after a federal judge ordered the Los Angeles Police Department to do the same. In the last few months, Orange County prosecutors sent letters to more than 200 people releasing them from the conditions imposed by local injunctions, according to records reviewed by The Times.

A separate court battle prompted caused the Stanislaus County district attorney’s office to suspend its use of gang injunctions in late 2017, and that legal defeat led police in Ventura County to halt enforcement against 368 suspected gang members a short time later. The San Francisco city attorney’s office announced a review of its injunctions earlier this year, and last month, prosecutors in San Diego County said they would review their decades-old gang injunction rosters to see if hundreds of people still needed to be subject to the court orders.

Under withering criticism, Oakland stopped using injunctions in 2015, and prosecutors in San Diego County said police there have not sought a new injunction since 2011.

“The ground has shifted underneath this whole process,” said Sean Garcia-Leys, a staff attorney with the Urban Peace Institute who represents several clients subject to gang injunctions in Southern California.

The series of policy shifts started a few weeks after President Trump said California authorities were being soft on gang crime, an accusation that puzzled most law enforcement leaders in the state. Los Angeles is the birthplace of MS-13, the Salvadoran gang that Trump commonly refers to as evidence of the link between crime and illegal immigration, but its presence in the city and state has weakened, as has been the case with other gangs.

Trump made a baffling claim that people would see “crime like no one’s ever seen crime in this country” if he removed federal law enforcement agents from California, even though homicides and gang activity have plummeted in major cities such as Los Angeles when compared with the height of the gang boom of the 1990s. Police chiefs in the cities where the injunctions have been scaled back in recent months said they have not seen an immediate surge in gang crime as a result.

The injunctions are civil court orders that can bar a suspected gang member from wearing certain clothes or associating with other alleged members of the same gang set within neighborhoods thought to be under that gang’s control, called “safety zones.” Violation of the orders can bring contempt charges and jail time.

Although gang injunctions have been used in other states, they are most commonly associated with California, where Los Angeles used them against thousands of residents to combat a rise in gang violence that gave the Bloods, Crips and other groups national prominence. From 2000 to 2017, the city obtained injunctions against 79 gang sets, encompassing roughly 8,900 people.

Los Angeles’ sprawling network of injunctions has long drawn criticism from activists and the American Civil Liberties Union, which alleged in a 2016 lawsuit that the way the city enforced its injunctions was unconstitutional. Chief U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips agreed, ruling in March that the city had probably violated the civil rights of accused gang members who were targeted without being given a chance to challenge their gang affiliation in court.

The future of the injunctions in Los Angeles remains unclear. City officials removed 7,300 people from the orders last year after determining many of them had either moved away from the areas where the injunctions could be enforced, left the gang life or, in some cases, been incarcerated or died. Phillips’ ruling barred the city from enforcing injunctions against an additional 1,450 people.

In the weeks after her decision, law enforcement officials in other cities agreed to review or modify their own injunction policies.

Under the terms of a gang injunction, Peter Arellano would have risked arrest for wearing blue or even holding up Dodgers paraphenalia in Echo Park. Now he no longer has that fear. (Video by Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In late March, Long Beach suspended enforcement of roughly 850 injunctions it had in place against suspected gang members. Unlike Los Angeles, the city had originally given the targets a chance to appear in court before enforcing the orders, but City Prosecutor Douglas Haubert said he would still review the city’s policies.

“We’re doing a top-down review to make sure that our tactics are still effective and protect the rights of the people who live in the gang area as well as those targeted by court orders,” he said.

Some authorities had worried that reducing the use of injunctions in Los Angeles County could lead to an uptick in gang crime, but Long Beach police spokeswoman Nancy Pratt said it was too early to quantify any effect. Pratt said the department expects the city will resume its use of injunctions soon, but cautioned that the court orders are just part of a multi-pronged approach to gang activity that also includes intervention and rehabilitation programs.

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The San Diego County district attorney’s office is also planning to review its injunctions, which since 1997 have imposed restrictions on 787 people, to determine if they are still necessary, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Hickey, who helps oversee gang prosecutions.

Between mid-March and late May, prosecutors in Orange County sent letters to 223 suspected gang members releasing them from injunctions, according to records reviewed by The Times. The action removed nearly 20% of the 1,214 accused gang members the county successfully sought injunctions against since 2006.

There are 652 people subject to gang injunctions in Orange County, said Michelle Van Der Linden, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office. She said the recent removals are part of a larger process to give the targets of injunctions a chance to challenge their alleged gang affiliation in court. That procedure began in 2013, after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that said Orange County’s enforcement of injunctions against suspected gang members who had not received court hearings was unconstitutional.

Van Der Linden would not say if the recent purge of the county’s injunction rolls was linked to the Los Angeles ruling.

Echoing complaints made in other parts of the state, activists in Orange County said injunctions can sometimes punish people for simply living near or speaking to a documented gang member.

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“My grandchildren go to school with some of these people who they want to put on a gang injunction, and if they talk to them, if they associate with them, they could be put on a gang injunction,” said Teresa Smith of the Law Enforcement Accountability Network. “It kind of worries us how this will affect the whole community, not the gang.”

The federal court ruling in Los Angeles marked the second defeat for injunction proponents in the span of a few months. In December 2017, an appellate court upheld the dismissal of a contempt charge against a man named in a gang injunction by the Stanislaus County district attorney’s office. Carlos David Sanchez was arrested in 2013 and charged with violating an injunction naming him as part of the Deep South Side Nortenos, according to court records.

In throwing out the charges, the lower court ruled that Sanchez was never given a chance to challenge his alleged gang affiliation in court. Prosecutors removed approximately 120 people from that injunction after the ruling, said John Goold, a spokesman for the Stanislaus County district attorney’s office.

The Sanchez case also led the Oxnard Police Department to stop enforcing injunctions against roughly 368 suspected gang members, Asst. Chief Eric Sonstegard said. Later this month, the Oxnard City Council will hold a hearing to amend the city’s gang injunction ordinance so that court hearings can be arranged to determine the gang status of those people it seeks to enjoin, Sonstegard said.

Though the department is not abandoning the use of injunctions, Sonstegard did say that changes in the public nature of gang culture have made injunctions less effective than they once were.

“I think the gang injunctions bring some reassurance to our neighborhoods and our community members, but I don’t think they have the exact same impact when they were first implemented 10 or 12 years ago,” said Sonstegard, a former LAPD officer. “It’s changed. It used to be six gang members hanging out on a street corner, four gang members hanging out in cars, cruising up and down streets. You don’t see that behavior as much as you used to.”

The rulings in Los Angeles and Stanislaus highlight an issue regarding gang injunctions that several major jurisdictions in California fixed years ago.

Before enforcing injunctions, officials in Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco and San Bernardino offered the targets a chance to challenge the accusation in court, according to city officials and records.

“Some have put in place more stringent safeguards ... which L.A. has been slower to adopt,” said Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU who worked on the lawsuit against Los Angeles.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office, defended Los Angeles’ injunction policy, citing older court rulings that validated the city’s process of enforcing injunctions against people who had not received court hearings. The city’s requests for injunctions have typically named only the gang as a defendant and allowed deputy city attorneys and LAPD gang investigators to determine who is a member.

Asked about the practices of other cities, Wilcox said in a statement that “naming individual defendants would significantly jeopardize the effectiveness” of the court orders.

“The city has much larger, much older and more entrenched gangs than other jurisdictions — multi-generational gangs with 600 to 800 current active members,” Wilcox said. “Moreover, new members join gangs, quickly making any list of named defendants obsolete.”

The city attorney’s office and the ACLU remain in settlement talks that could determine the future of Los Angeles’ use of gang injunctions.

Bibring said he believes recent court rulings could prompt more jurisdictions around the state to reevaluate their policies. The civil rights group has filed a slew of public records requests to check if other agencies share the policy that the federal judge concluded was problematic in Los Angeles, he said.

“For years, police have been able to label someone a gang member and place them under restrictive injunctions with no process and no oversight,” Bibring said. “The court’s ruling changes that.”

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