Law enforcement officials here Tuesday were groping for ways to protect citizens from gang violence, a day after an Orange County Superior Court judge stripped them of one of their most effective weapons on constitutional grounds.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Alfonso J. Valdez, an investigator with the county’s Target Gang Unit, assigned to Westminster. The gang members “know now they have a free rein.”
When gang members were first served in early July with a temporary restraining order that prohibited them from, among other things, congregating in the streets, “I think they were a bit befuddled,” Valdez said. “It caught everybody off guard. They got intimidated by paper.”
The result, he said, was a “drastic difference” in the quality of life in the targeted area, 25 square blocks bordered by Westminster Boulevard, Golden West Street, Trask Avenue and Hoover Street. But now, the investigator said, he fears that progress may disappear.
On Monday, Judge Richard J. Beacom said the restraining order, which targeted 49 reputed Westminster gang members, was unconstitutional because it banned association rather than conduct. Criminal activities were also listed in the court order, but the judge said that those offenses were already covered in the criminal code.
“The losers are the people who live in the community,” said Westminster City Atty. Richard Jones.
“It’s a tough situation,” he said. “The city’s trying to take a pro-active position, to defend the community before a crime occurs.”
Jones, who met on the issue Tuesday with Deputy Dist. Atty. John S. Anderson, a gang specialist assigned to the city, said they had not yet decided whether to appeal the judge’s ruling.
But even as officials weighed what to do next, Anderson said he had received numerous calls from local residents, urging them to appeal the ruling and continue the battle against gangs. And Anderson himself sounded willing to carry on the fight.
While the judge’s ruling was a “total shock and disappointment,” Anderson said, “it’s only a temporary setback.”
The officials voiced the hope that, even without a restraining order, they will be able to sustain the two months of peace attributed to the civil action.
“There are other innovative techniques that we have been and will be using” to combat gangs, Anderson said.
Within the area targeted in the restraining order, there was muted reaction to Monday’s ruling.
Cesar Hernandez, 21, one of those named in the court order, was relaxing with half a dozen of his friends in Sigler Park, which borders the area covered by the ban.
The judge’s ruling was right, he said.
“They can’t take that right away from us,” said Hernandez, who identified himself as a former gang member. “We can hang around wherever we want. . . . We’re willing to keep cool, just kick back.”
But Susie Pena, who had brought her daughter to the park, said “it would be safer for my kid” if the order had been upheld.
At an apartment complex on the 7200 block of 21st Street that was cited as a public nuisance in the court order because of frequent criminal activity, Soco Malpica, 28, said that even there the past few months had been a relatively peaceful time.
“When I first came here, I was scared,” she said. “It’s much better now.”
Other California cities, including Los Angeles, Burbank and San Jose, have made successful use of such restraining orders in the past few years without challenge from the courts. But unlike the overturned ordinance in Westminster, none of these measures have specifically banned people from congregating over such a broad area.
The Los Angeles order, which went into effect in April, covered 180 square blocks and named a local gang as an unincorporated association, without naming any individuals, according to Jule Bishop, deputy city attorney.
Police and residents of the area, she said, believe that the order has made a difference in the area’s quality of life.
Only one person has so far been convicted of violating the order, she said, and a municipal judge has twice declined to consider its constitutionality.
In Burbank, a nearly identical court order covering more than 80 alleged gang members has been in effect without challenge since October, according to Chief Assistant City Atty. Juli C. Scott.
The only significant difference between the two, said Scott, is that “ours was just one block where we were having the biggest problem, the focal point of gang activities.” The measure banned reputed gang members from congregating outdoors--but only on that block.
Located on a cul-de-sac, the block was especially dangerous, Scott said, because it’s “conducive to ambushes” of police or members of other gangs.
As a result of the court order, the targeted gang members have dispersed, Scott said. “It’s been a big asset in breaking up the gang’s turf area. . . . They’re scared to death of a piece of paper.”
Only two people have been cited for violating the order since October, she said.
Gang members in Burbank, including the 19 people who lived on the block covered, are free to associate inside their homes and in other parts of the city. If they leave the gang, Scott said, they can contact police and ask to be dropped from the order.
“We believe the Burbank order is unconstitutional,” said Mark Silverstein, an ACLU staff attorney who argued against the Westminster order on Monday. “We have been watching all of these nuisance cases and watching how they progress. We haven’t made a decision about where or how to mount challenges raising our constitutional objections.”