Police across Los Angeles County on Thursday began serving legal notices to 3,700 reputed street gang members, warning them that membership in criminal gangs is now a felony under a new state anti-terrorism law.
The novel attempt to curb gangs was announced by Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn and representatives of eight law enforcement agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department and the police departments of Los Angeles, Compton, Long Beach, Montebello, Pomona, Pasadena and Santa Monica.
Gang investigators in those jurisdictions have targeted nine troublesome street gangs and have instructed patrol officers to serve a printed summation of the new law to each suspected member of those gangs whenever they are spotted during routine patrol or arrests.
Recipients of the notices will be asked to sign a form acknowledging that they have been served.
Under the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, one of nearly a dozen state anti-gang laws that took effect in January, members of “criminal street gangs” can be prosecuted on an additional charge of gang membership once they are arrested on suspicion of a gang-related crime.
The additional charge could be brought against any gang member who had been served with the notices now being distributed by law officials. Gang members who had not been served could still face extra jail or state prison time for gang-related crimes if they were found to meet the criteria of the new law.
However, the law does not allow the prosecution of a gang member for membership alone.
The law targets “any person who actively participates in a criminal street gang with knowledge that its members have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity and who willfully promotes or assists any felonious conduct by members of that gang.” Punishment can be as much as three years in state prison.
A criminal gang is defined as one in which two or more members have committed two or more offenses within three years, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Genelin, the head of the D.A.'s hard-core gang section. Offenses include assault with a deadly weapon, robbery, homicide, sale of narcotics, arson and shooting at occupied dwellings.
As an example of how the law will be implemented, Reiner said the owner of a car or a weapon used in a drive-by shooting could be prosecuted under the law even if he had not otherwise participated in the act.
There were 452 murders by gang members in Los Angeles County last year, a 16.7% increase over 1987. In the first quarter of this year there were 78 killings in the city of Los Angeles alone. About half the victims were innocent bystanders, according to Reiner. Gang investigators say there are an estimated 70,000 gang members in Los Angeles County.
Drafted by Reiner’s Staff
The new anti-gang law was drafted by Reiner’s staff and carried in the Legislature by Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Tarzana) and Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles). Reiner said the law gives authorities a unique tool “to rid the streets of hoodlums that are terrorizing and killing our citizens.” However, he acknowledged that the tactic is “not the be-all and end-all” in the fight against gangs.
For years, criminal justice experts have struggled to devise laws that could cope with street gang activity by treating it as a form of organized crime. They have been frustrated by the fact that while gang crime often grows out of association among gang members, most street gangs lack the classic organization associated with criminal institutions.
In 1987, Hahn’s office filed a civil lawsuit against one gang in West Los Angeles, the Playboy Gangster Crips, asking that members be banned from associating with one another. However, a judge refused, calling that request “too broad.”
The judge allowed other portions of the injunction to stand, including prohibitions against entering private property without permission, blocking access to streets and harassing or threatening residents.
Reiner and Hahn said use of the new law may be expanded in coming months. Hahn, looking into a battery of television cameras at the curb-side press conference held in front of a graffiti-covered public library at 43rd Place and Olive Street, urged gang members to “check it out.”
‘Don’t Have the Jail Space’
But a veteran gang investigator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “I don’t think gang members are going to be particularly scared of this law.
“It’s another good tool, but between me and you we got more laws than Carter’s got liver pills right now. We can fill up the jails with gang members, but we don’t have the jail space to keep them.”
Another law enforcement officer with extensive gang experience said he fears the law will be applied too broadly because expertise among officers assigned to identify gang members is not good enough.
“I realize that we have to do something, but when you have carte blanche, it’s difficult not to abuse it,” the lawman said.
The press conference to publicize enforcement of the new law attracted many neighborhood residents, most of whom hailed the new effort.
One of them was George Walker, plant manager of the West Vernon Elementary School across the street from the library. He complained that street gang members often trespass onto the school grounds after dark, threatening the safety of his staff and the school’s faculty.
“Sometimes it’s almost unbearable,” Walker told Reiner.
“We’re working on it,” Reiner told him.
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