Frustrated by the rising toll that drugs and violence have taken on their neighborhoods, residents bemoaned the loss Monday of a powerful new weapon against gangs after a judge threw out an order that had kept gang members from congregating on the streets.
“It’s very frustrating to see court decisions that favor the criminals instead of law-abiding citizens,” said Beth Fuller, who lives within the boundary covered by the gang ban. “I don’t know why criminal activity deserves to be protected.”
Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard J. Beacom, although sympathetic to the city of Westminster’s efforts to reel in gangs, said the anti-gang measure appeared to violate constitutional protections of freedom of association.
While some gang members applauded the decision, Fuller captured the tone of many residents in expressing a feeling of frustration about the fight against crime.
Sitting on couches in their modest house, she and her husband, Sid, mused over the changes that have taken place in their neighborhood--especially half a block away on 21st Street.
Once a stretch of single-family residences, 21st Street is now dotted with apartment buildings that often are the scene of drug deals and gang activities, they said. The Fullers recounted a drive-by shooting a few months ago outside a nearby home, and their 20-year-old daughter, Michele, said gangs have become far more visible at her old high school.
The temporary restraining order that the city secured against suspected gang members in early July offered a reason for hope.
“I believe (the order) did make a difference,” said Sid Fuller, who runs a carpet cleaning business with his wife. “It gave police a reason to keep coming down on the kids. . . . They’re up to no good. They’re not meeting for a church social.”
Maynard Poynter, who has lived on Chestnut Street north of 21st for 19 years, agreed that the court order was a positive step. “It might be unconstitutional; I don’t know,” said Poynter, a machinist. "(But) I believe the reason they’re meeting is to do something destructive.”
Patty Poynter, his wife, said her small street has fortunately avoided violence. She and her husband have four children in Westminster schools, and “when we start seeing violence and feeling it right here, then it’s time to get up and move.”
Other nearby residents had no idea that Westminster had obtained a court order barring gang members from meeting. The idea of such a move came as a revelation to them.
“Most of the (West Trece gang members) were stuck in their houses” for a few months, remembered Scott Richardson, 21, who lives on 21st Street. “So that’s why I didn’t see them for a while.”
Some of the gang members went to school with him, Richardson said, and many of them simply like to hang out with each other or “just need something to do.”
But Richardson also believes something must be done about the gangs, which are becoming more concentrated and violent, Richardson said as he surveyed the scene of a recent drive-by shooting near his home.
“If you weren’t in the gang, you never walked on that side of the street,” he said, motioning to the sidewalk across from him. That’s the site of an apartment building that houses many gangsters, he explained.
At nearby Sigler Park in Westminster, where police say many of the gang members gather, people continued playing basketball and football Monday with little thought of the goings-on during the day in court. Edward Pena, a 73-year-old security guard, stopped there briefly to chat with friends.
The idea of keeping people from associating with each other for no reason is wrong, said Pena, who has lived in Westminster all his life. But he supported the order because “once a gang gets together, they gain power,” he said.
But for those most directly affected by the order, its death was a boon.
“Not everybody’s going to go out and kill people,” said Oscar Saldana, a 30-year-old man named in the court order. “They’ve just got to look at each person as an individual.”
Prohibiting association is “not the right thing,” he added.
“We don’t do (gang-banging) for the gang,” said Alex Sanchez, 16, also named in the order. “We do it for our needs.”