San Fernando Bans Gang Members From Park
San Fernando took an unprecedented--and critics say unconstitutional--step Monday by banning gang members from a public park that has been the scene of gang violence.
The San Fernando City Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve an ordinance calling for police to compile a list of gang members and give them written notices that they have been banned from Las Palmas Park, a small park in west San Fernando. The notices will be distributed to more than 125 suspected gang members at the park or as they are encountered on the street. Violators are subject to a $250 fine.
“It’s a drastic measure that we have to take because of the situation,” said Mayor Doude Wysbeek. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, which helped draft the ordinance, said San Fernando was the first city in the nation to take such action.
San Fernando officials have been seeking a solution to what police called a longtime “turf war” between two rival gangs over the park. The matter came to a head in July when a mother and her three young children were caught in gun cross-fire between the gangs. All four suffered wounds from a blast by a sawed-off shotgun, police said.
Since then, police have stepped up enforcement by assigning two officers to patrol the park each night.
The ordinance “provides leverage that we need so that people know that we are serious,” said Jess Margarito, the city’s director of community services and a former city councilman.
But Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the ordinance could be used in a discriminatory way and her organization is considering filing a lawsuit to stop it.
“If the idea is to arrest people who are carrying guns illegally, that is a different question,” said Ripston. “But if the idea is that a gang member simply because he is in a gang may not go into a park, that is something that should be challenged.
“The police cannot make a determination who can use a privilege and who may not use a privilege,” she said.
Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said he expected the law to be challenged, but predicted that it will stand up in court.
“There are those who would argue that this ordinance would deny gangs their constitutional right of ‘peaceful assembly and association,’ ” Reiner said at a press conference Monday afternoon. “As I see it, it is the public that has been denied its right to peaceful assembly and association, and it is their constitutional rights that need protecting.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Genelin said Los Angeles city officials will monitor the San Fernando ordinance to determine if a similar law should be enacted in Los Angeles.
The San Fernando ordinance incorporates a 1988 state law known as the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act.
The law allows authorities to designate an individual as a criminal street gang member if the person belongs to a gang that has “commission of . . . criminal acts” as one of its primary activities and if the individual has committed two of the list of felonies included in the bill.
If convicted of another felony, a criminal street gang member can be sentenced to an additional three years in prison. Genelin, who heads the department’s hard-core gang division, said more than 300 cases have been prosecuted using the so-called STEP Act.
San Fernando police will use the STEP Act criteria to draw up a list of gang members. “The intent is to get the gangs out of the park, not to arrest people,” said Police Chief Dominick Rivetti. “What we’ve seen is law-abiding citizens and wholesome, productive recreational activities being driven out of the park.”
Yvonne Lovato, a spokeswoman for a San Fernando Valley community organization called VOICE (Valley Organized in Community Efforts), said her group supports the ordinance.
“Right now many residents live under terrorism,” Lovato said of people who live near the park. “The park is very unsafe. We support the banning, not just at this park, but all parks in the Valley where there is a gang problem.”