Gang injunction in Santa Ana will do more harm than good, critics say
Hot dogs and carne asada sizzled on the grill in a narrow courtyard where Vanessa Cerda and friends gathered on a recent Sunday afternoon. Across the road, a bounce house was set up for children to play and nearby, a woman sold pupusas in front of her home. It was a hot but tranquil afternoon on South Townsend Street, a stretch of densely packed apartment complexes in the heart of Santa Ana.
In June, Orange County prosecutors asked a judge to impose a gang injunction in this neighborhood, saying it suffers from drug dealing, violence and intimidation at the hands of the Townsend Street gang.
Cerda and others here have vowed to fight back, saying an injunction will do more harm than good in a neighborhood that has its problems but is no longer a hotbed for violence.
“It violates everybody’s rights,” Cerda said. “Not just the typical gang member. It’s categorizing everybody.”
Others said the quiet afternoon masked the unease. Just a short walk down the road, gardener Saturnio Roman sat in his apartment watching TV in the sweltering heat, the window wide open but blocked by iron bars.
“I come home and I just lock myself in,” he said. “It’s best not to get involved with anyone here.”
An injunction, he said, “could save one from a lot of problems.”
Last week, an Orange County judge approved a preliminary injunction but issued a stay barring enforcement against 10 of the 25 alleged gang members named in the case, all of whom had shown up to a hearing to challenge it. Whether a permanent injunction will be issued has yet to be decided.
The injunction will be the first in the county since late last year when a federal appeals court rejected the district attorney’s effort to enforce an injunction against suspected gang members in the city of Orange, saying it violated their right to due process. The injunctions serve as a restraining order by limiting the activity of suspected gang members.
Prosecutors say the issues in that case were narrow and have little to do with the current offensive on Townsend Street. But opponents say the courts should seize the moment and take a deeper look at gang injunctions and the chilling effect they have on a community where everyday activities such as associating with others or being out in public at night can draw the attention of police.
“I think that there’s a much better understanding of the consequences of these gang injunctions,” said Bardis Vakili, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which sued in the Orange case and filed a friend of the court brief in the Townsend case. “There’s a recognition that they are severe deprivations of liberty and in order for the government to do that they really need to be held to their burden.”
While the legal considerations are important to opponents, there’s also a sense that injunctions simply do more to harm young people in the community by branding them. Some may dress in ways that make them look like gang members to police, while others may have been involved in gangs in the past but have since settled down, activists say.
Townsend Street has long been known for gang activity, but some say things have calmed in recent years, causing them to wonder why an injunction — the first in the city since 2006 — is needed now.
In the afternoon heat over at Jerome Park, which sits in the injunction zone — a 0.39-square-mile rectangle southwest of downtown — families watched children scramble on the playground. A game of youth baseball was underway on a field.
“You can see people are not in fear for their lives here,” said Carolyn Torres, who has been working with the group Chicanos Unidos to stop the injunction.
Recently, several community organizations have been making an effort to improve the neighborhood and help encourage the youth of Townsend, she said. An injunction, she worries, would end up labeling many as gang members, allowing police to target them.
“There’s movement in this community, grass roots movement,” she said. “And this is so counterproductive to those efforts.”
Santa Ana Councilman David Benavides, who lives in the safety zone, agreed that violence had been falling in recent years. But he said he’s seen an uptick in homicides and shootings in recent months.
“The gang presence and dominance of the gang has gone down. There are more responsible apartment building owners, there is an active neighborhood association and active parents group,” he said. “But the reality is even though strides have been made there is still a presence of gang activity and drug activity.”
Six months ago, he said, a stray bullet flew through his window and landed in his living room.
While prevention is important, he said, gang injunctions can also be a valuable tool when properly enforced.
“The residents need to be able to know they can trust the Police Department, that it’s not going to be a free-for-all for the gang unit to come in with a heavy fist,” he said.
When the injunction is implemented, “there will be high expectations and a high level of accountability on the Police Department to ensure that it’s done well,” he said.
When prosecutors first went to court in late July to argue for the injunction, the small courtroom was filled to capacity. Sana Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas sat beside the prosecutor, and Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas watched from the sidelines.
Outside the door, several young men with shaved heads and baggy pants who had been named in court filings as suspected Townsend Street gang members lingered until Superior Court Judge Franz Miller urged them to step forward and state their names.
As they stood together in the middle of the room, the prosecutor, the ACLU attorney and others who had volunteered to represent juveniles in the case, made their arguments.
“This violence has got to stop, your honor,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Eckermann told the judge. “This is a dire situation.... We do need to use every available tool to protect this community.”
Douglas Potratz, an attorney who had volunteered to represent a juvenile subpoenaed in the case, pushed back. “This is a sledge hammer being used against an ant,” he told the judge.
A hearing on the details of the preliminary injunction is scheduled for Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana.
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