L.A. officials considering changes to gang injunction policy after lawsuit alleges constitutional violations

Los Angeles officials are considering making significant changes to the way they enforce gang injunctions in the wake of a lawsuit that accused the city of violating the constitutional rights of thousands of people, according to court documents made public this week.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit last year, accusing the city and the Los Angeles Police Department of serving injunctions against people who had not been given an opportunity to prove they are not gang members in court. The injunctions are civil court orders that bar suspected gang members from engaging in certain activities in areas where the gang is known to congregate, which the city terms “safety zones.”

In a filing in federal court this week, Deputy City Atty. Patricia Ursea acknowledged the city is planning to alter the policies that govern the injunctions. People subject to injunctions will have at least 30 days to challenge them in state court or through a city removal process before they become enforceable, according to the filing.

The city is also going to revise its criteria for removing people from injunctions, which had come under sharp criticism from the ACLU and other activists, and has considered releasing an undisclosed number of people from current injunctions, according to the filing.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office, declined to offer more details about the revisions, citing the ongoing litigation. He said the city will announce the policy changes when they are finalized later this year.

The LAPD did not respond to a request for comment.

The city is currently enforcing 46 separate injunctions against approximately 10,000 people in Los Angeles, according to the ACLU’s lawsuit, which was filed in October of 2016. Nearly 80 gangs are subject to injunctions, according to the city attorney’s office, accounting for approximately 20% of Los Angeles’ known gang population.

The city has used the injunctions as a tool to stifle gang crime since the late 1980s and early 1990s. People subject to injunctions are generally barred from wearing clothing that police believe highlights gang affiliation within the safety zones, and from socializing with other alleged gang members in public, including family members. Gang crime has waned in the city, and across the country, since then.

The city and the ACLU had been in settlement talks, but those ended last month, according to court records. Ursea’s filing asked the court to consider if the ACLU’s suit was moot now because the city believes its planned policy changes answered the ACLU’s concerns about violation of due process.

Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the ACLU of Southern California, said it was too early to tell whether the policy changes would provide the relief the ACLU sought on behalf of its clients.

“Those changes are aimed at the points that we’ve raised, but whether they address them or not, I don’t know,” he said Thursday.

Use of injunctions has come under fire in Los Angeles and other parts of the state. In 2013, an appellate court found that use of the court orders by some Orange County law enforcement agencies violated residents’ due process rights.

The Los Angeles City Council also approved a $30-million settlement last year to end a class-action lawsuit brought by gang members who said the injunctions subjected them to unlawful curfews. The funds were used to create a job training program for gang members.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU did not question the effectiveness of the injunctions but blasted the methods by which the city obtains them and what it called a “painstakingly slow” relief process for those who think they have been wrongfully labeled as gang members. City officials usually name a gang faction, rather than individual gang members, when seeking an injunction, according to the suit. That creates a situation where the city typically wins the orders during an uncontested court proceeding, the ACLU said.

The injunctions themselves have long been hailed as part of the city’s success in combating gang crime. Tony Moreno, a retired LAPD investigator and expert on gang activity, said street gangs like to control territory through public shows of force and intimidation. The injunctions, which bar them from congregating in public, can help break that stranglehold.

“That’s part of the gang game, intimidating the community. When that works, you don’t have people coming forward, you have people less likely to call the police,” he said.

The injunctions can also help reduce violent crime, both by disrupting gang activity and reducing a gang’s visibility, according to Moreno. The sight of several gang members assembled on a street corner could look like a bulls-eye to rival criminals, he said.

“The other thing you got to remember about gang members is when they congregate, they’re a great target,” he said. “I can’t tell you all the shootings I’ve been to when there’s a drive-by, and they went to get three or four guys on a corner, and they hit a kid.”

But when someone is wrongfully labeled a gang member, they face an uphill battle when trying to clear their name, according to Bibring, who called the city’s removal process “woefully inadequate.”

“The city’s removal process, at the moment, is still very one-sided. It allows the person who is subject to a gang injunction an opportunity to present an argument as to why they should not be on the injunction, but they’re never given notice of why police think they are participants in a gang,” he said. “They’re never allowed to cross-examine. They don’t know what evidence the police have.”

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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