In September 2017, the Supreme Court of California heard a case from Peter Arellano, a Los Angeles local who was legally barred from standing with his family in his own front yard. Since the height of gang violence in the 1980s, California has served members of Arellano’s community, along with dozens of others across the state, with gang injunctions—civil actions that prohibit specifically named individuals from engaging in particular activities within a clearly defined target area. In other words, injunctions prevent alleged gang members from going about their normal lives. This past March, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) won a preliminary ruling to bar Los Angeles from imposing injunctions, claiming that they illegally strip away civil liberties.
Now, over 9,000 LA residents are free from arbitrary restrictions on their day-to-day activities. Simultaneously, police officers and community leaders find themselves in a transition period with no clear path forward. In fact, because incidents of violent gang crime in California dropped significantly with gang injunctions, the state is now considering re-implementing the policy. Though the significantly lowered crime rate may seem attractive, closer analysis reveals that gang injunctions and their associated limitations on civil liberties are racist and can be largely ineffective. As Californians seek to fill this policing gap, they should look to superior community-based and cooperative policing solutions.
Injunctions have been in wide use for the last two decades. Many of them address already-illegal activities, such as underage drinking or drug possession; the additional restrictions they impose are justified under rules governing “public nuisances.” However, imposing a gang injunction on an individual requires little more than mere suspicion: One might be served on the basis of something as trivial as an arm tattoo. Further, individuals have historically not been able to file for appeal on injunctions. For a practice meant to lower gang involvement, gang injunctions are a bizarre violation of civil rights that have only served to catch more people in the gang net. But examination of their history reveals that gang injunctions aren’t malfunctioning—they’re fulfilling their original, discriminatory purpose.
Gang injunctions have been prejudiced from their inception. The first injunctions were served to the Playboy Gangster Crips, who were active in a neighborhood called Cadillac-Corning. Interestingly, Cadillac-Corning was nowhere near the most crime-ridden area in the city, nor were the Playboy Gangster Crips the most dangerous gang. They were, however, close to a nearby upper-class white neighborhood. A report from researcher Ana Muniz states, “the injunction was meticulously designed to control the movement of black youth by criminalizing activities and behavior that is unremarkable and legal in other jurisdictions.” Police officers specially designed these injunctions by interviewing Black and Hispanic youth about their social behavior in order to craft policies that reflected their observations. Though officials claim that gang injunctions are race-blind, these restrictions are very specifically written to target the habits of young men of color, and have never been intended to combat gang violence in a substantive way.
Instead, the practice merely shifts gang violence away from white communities. It’s widely understood that gang injunctions contribute to gentrification, considering they explicitly disallow individuals from being in certain places. This creates the perception of safety—also often rooted in racism and classism—which raises housing prices in the area. Yet, pushing out people thought to be affiliated with gangs, regardless of whether they actually are, does nothing to solve the root of the problem.
Some officials wrongly attribute the recent crime rate drop to gang injunctions. Proponents of the practice argue that quarantining people under these modified vagrancy laws is helpful, but concede that the laws have been too rigidly applied in the last decade. This argument hinges on the premise that no other forces could claim credit for the reduction in gang crime. In reality, researchers attribute this decrease to a variety of factors, namely a combination of economic shifts, changing patterns of organized crime, and community action. This last element may be the alternative to facilitate a smooth transition away from injunctions.
Both New York and California have recently increased funding for community gang prevention programs within their most gang-affected cities. For the last two years, California has given 10 million dollars to flesh out a program called CalGRIP: California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention. One of its youth programs, the Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) program, combines school programs and evening outdoor activities with individual tracking and support methods. Reports suggest that, “more than half of the eligible at-risk youth who were enrolled in GRYD and retested six months later now had risk levels that would be considered ineligible.” Violent crime decreased in program-targeted areas, though it is important to note that, in many areas, crime was already decreasing before the program went into effect. Regardless, the program has been successful in its goal of reducing gang involvement and improving behavior through better, community-building alternatives.
Boyle Heights in Los Angeles is one neighborhood benefiting from such community-based action. Precincts in the neighborhood all have at least one Hispanic officer, which more closely represents its demographics and helps prevent racial profiling. As a result, officers have formed more collaborative relationships with community members by working with programs like GRYD to increase communication and to implement reformative rather than punitive justice.
The community is also very proud of the impact of Summer Night Lights, a GRYD program that organizes weekend events, hosts activities for kids, and employs over 1,000 youth between the ages of 14 and 24. The results of youth prevention programs and community-based policies demonstrate that early and consistent intervention is much more effective in preventing gang violence than gang injunctions.
During this transition away from injunctions, policymakers in Sacramento’s budgeting meetings should stress the importance of these programs. Not only do they prevent violence through full community engagement, but they also do so without infringing upon anyone’s civil rights. California has taken major steps in the right direction by barring further injunctions, but the state needs to lend support to more effective and fair models of crime prevention. Community-based policing and youth programs, both shown to effectively decrease gang violence, demand state resources. These innovative programs accomplish all that gang injunctions claim to, while uplifting communities in the process.
Photo: “Ramona Gardens Boyle Heights“