In many ways, Rashad Newsome and Carell Johnson were no different from typical high school students: Newsome had a part-time job and was ranked as one of the top high school football players in the nation; Johnson had a 3.25 GPA and planned to attend California State University, Fresno. But thanks to the Los Angeles Police Department, both boys had something a bit more distinctive on their resumes: official membership in the Grape Street Crips.
However, Newsome and Johnson’s connections to the gang were only paper-deep; neither had actually shown any criminal or gang-related behavior. Newsome was determined to be a gang member when police officers stopped him and three fellow football players walking home from practice. When stopped, a tattoo of Newsome’s nickname – “Dooley,” a family nickname so old he could not remember why he was given it – was visible on his arm to the officers. To them, this evidence was enough, and all four were added to a gang injunction, a civil lawsuit filed against a gang that declares its behavior to be a public nuisance and restricts the activity of anyone declared a member of it within certain geographical boundaries.
Gang injunctions began in Los Angeles, the “gang capital” of the United States, and were first introduced in the 1980s to combat gang-related violence. These injunctions lay out specific geographic areas, called “safe zones,” where restrictions are placed on anyone identified as a member of a particular gang. In most cases, injunctions restate many things that are already considered illegal, such as possessing drugs, drinking alcohol in public, and possessing illegal weapons. But many injunctions go even further to outlaw everyday activities by establishing curfews, restricting loitering, approaching motor vehicles, and finally, the crux and center of a gang injunction – prohibiting associating with anyone else named in the gang injunction. Compounding the problem is the fact that once you are placed in a gang injunction, it’s very difficult to be taken off of it.
The legal theory behind these injunctions arises from the concept of “nuisances.” In California, Civil Code Section 3479 defines a nuisance as anything that is “injurious to health,” “indecent or offensive to the senses,” “an obstruction to the free use of property,” or “unlawfully obstructs the free passage or use” of public space. Since some aspects of gang activity often violate one of these criteria, attorneys can file a civil injunction to abate the nuisance. Once an injunction is filed against a gang, the gang is then considered to be a nuisance per se. Once classified this way, “no proof is required, beyond the actual fact of their existence, to establish the nuisance. No ill effects need be proved.” When an injunction declares a gang a nuisance per se, everyday activities like talking with a friend on the street become prohibited for people identified as gang members.
With such harsh restrictions, gang injunctions pose a major problem to those included in the injunction but not actually involved in the gang, like Newsome and Johnson. Although the injunction may have initially cited true gang members when it was filed, the guidelines and requirements for adding potential members to an injunction are unacceptably vague. Even those in law enforcement admit as much, with former LAPD South Bureau Chief Early Paysinger saying, “I presume that periodically there are situations where unfortunately somebody [who is not a gang member] might be named [on the injunction]. Is that to say we target people? I don’t think we do. But does it happen? Of course it does.”
The civil liberties violations potentially present here are egregious; innocent Americans, who have been targeted due to inexcusably vague and stereotypical characteristics, are then barred by the injunction from enjoying the full freedoms in their everyday lives that all citizens are entitled to.
On the LAPD’s website, common gang identifiers listed are “white T-shirts,” “thin belts,” “wearing baggy or ‘sagging’ pants,” and “having baseball caps turned at an angle.” Clothing color is also listed as an identifier, with blue, black, red, white, green, brown, and purple explicitly noted. The list of vague identifiers doesn’t even stop there, as tattoos and jewelry (qualified as either “expensive or cheap”) are also included. The website does, fortunately, qualify these statements by saying that “clothing alone cannot positively determine membership,” but even so, the mere fact that such things are listed illustrates the potential for abuse of the system.
These vague criteria leave it completely up to the discretion of the police officers to decide who might be a problem. In fact, this gang member identifier webpage itself gives strong evidence of police discrimination against specific, historically marginalized minority groups by directly using the words “Hispanic” and “Black,” within their descriptors for gang members, but mentioning no other groups throughout the page. Especially considering the history of racial discrimination in American policing, there is too much room for potential misapplication for such policies to be acceptable.
The stories of Rashad Newsome and Carell Johnson speak to this fear. The gang injunction against the Grape Street Crips originally named 16 members. After just nine months, the injunction had expanded to include 240 people, which, considering the stories of Newsome and Johnson, likely included quite a few nongang members. The civil liberties violations potentially presented here are egregious; innocent Americans, who have been targeted due to inexcusably vague and stereotypical characteristics, are then barred by the injunction from enjoying the full freedoms in their everyday lives that all citizens are entitled to. Based on history and the LAPD website, however, the only communities that will be subject to having these freedoms suspended are those which continually are subject to discrimination – people of color.
To defend gang injunctions against these problems, policy makers, law enforcement officers, and prosecutors often cite the fact that gang injunctions have been found to reduce crime; some studies have shown a 5-10 percent drop in violent crime one year after their implementation. Another study found that one year after implementation, gang injunctions on average decreased the amount of service calls made for violent crimes by 12.4 percent, and the number of calls made for nonviolent or less serious crimes by 17.5 percent. Additionally, it has been found that community members generally report feeling safer from crime after the imposition of a gang injunction. Other studies, however, have shown that gang injunctions merely push violent crime into surrounding neighborhoods, and actually have caused a net increase in crime. Some scholars have stated that gang injunctions increase tension between communities and the police. In addition, they might over-criminalize youth activity, causing an increase in recidivism, worsening the problem that gang injunctions seek to fix.
Overall, their efficacy in reducing crime is unclear, which calls into question their legitimacy in light of the other problems injunctions pose. Compounding the case against injunctions, further evidence is emerging that suggests gang injunctions are, despite their stated goal of reducing crime, actually used for a more malicious purpose. Dr. Stefano Bloch, Presidential Diversity Fellow in the Urban Studies program at Brown University, theorizes that gang injunctions are being used to further perpetuate gentrification in areas that have already begun the process. He observed that Echo Park, a district of Los Angeles previously riddled with crime, is now undergoing such heavy gentrification that its property values are the highest they have ever been, and crime is at its lowest. In recent years, according to US census data, the demographics of Echo Park have drastically changed, going from 11.5 percent white in 1990 to 57.9 percent white in 2014, while in the same time span, the citywide white population has actually decreased from 37.4 to 28.6 percent.
Despite these significant changes and a decrease in violent crime, six gang injunctions were filed in 2014 in and around the Echo Park district. If the purpose of gang injunctions is to reduce violent crime, it seems unnecessary to institute them in low-crime areas. Professor Bloch proposes one reason for them: “According to my broader findings of racial bias in their implementation, I am left to ask if civil gang injunctions are, in fact, a form of state sanctioned neighborhood change in which minority communities get pushed out to make way for ascendant communities in need of housing, amenities, and new experiences.” In a way, employing a gang injunction in a nonnon-violent neighborhood is making a statement that certain groups of people are not welcome, and should leave. Through the context of “positive” change – increasing property values and a lower crime rate – the gang injunctions are, in Dr. Bloch’s opinion, implemented as a tool against what he calls “durable” Latino men who have withstood dislocation.
Gang injunctions are riddled with a variety of issues greatly inhibiting legal and just implementation. Studies have shown that they are not a uniformly effective deterrent to crime, having widely varying results that do not justify their use. But even if they were to reduce crime, the many civil rights violations that they cause combined with their entrapment of innocent people would call their legitimacy into question. Additionally, regardless of the intention behind them, gang injunctions have demonstrated racially discriminatory tendencies, predominantly affecting men of color. As of now, it appears gang injunctions will become more and more widespread, arising in cities in Texas, Nevada, Tennessee and Minnesota. Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California is challenging the constitutionality of gang injunctions on the grounds that they are discriminatory and violate the 14th amendment’s guarantee for due process of law. If they are successful in the case, thousands of Americans will no longer be subjected to harsh restrictions that came about from these unclear and discriminatory gang injunctions.
Several California cities recently moved forward with controversial gang injunctions. The measures, ruled constitutional by the California Supreme Court in 1997, allow city attorneys to file public nuisance lawsuits in civil court to restrict the movements of alleged gang members, often banning them from the neighborhoods with which they’re associated. Violators face misdemeanor charges and a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.
Since they were first introduced in the ‘80s, gang injunctions have become a distinctly Californian approach to fighting crime. Currently, at least a dozen cities in the state have issued them against alleged local gangs, each time with promises that they'll cut down on violent crime and, vaguely, make residents happier. So far, city attorneys love them. Many longtime residents and the ACLU don't. For years, there have been conflicting reports on whether the injunctions actually reduce violent crime.
In cities across northern California, the debate's taken on a particularly hostile tone. Critics claim that the injunctions are just thinly veiled attempts to kick black and brown folks out of some of what's fast becoming some of the priciest real estate in the country. Malia Cohen, San Francisco's District 10 Supervisor in the city's mostly black Bayview neighborhood, recently had this to say :
The gang injunctions are happening in project areas where there's redevelopment going on. Where I think there's a systematic effort to possibly, quote, 'clean up the streets,' some folks I've heard go so far as to say, 'ethnic cleansing.'
While "ethnic cleansing" might be a bit much, it's true that Cohen's district is in the middle of massive redevelopment, spearheaded in part by Florida-based developer Lennar Corporation and the University of California's massive campus expansion project. It's a theme that trickles through several other targets of the injunctions, including the city's Fillmore and Mission districts. The same also goes for North Oakland, where City Attorney John Russo's office put together a fairly extensive defense of the expensive measures, outlining that they only target "violent criminal enterprises:"
The injunction is based on the demands of many residents and merchants in the area. It is sharply focused on stopping the violence in our community while giving those responsible an opportunity to leave the criminal life.
Not an entirely convincing argument when you consider how tough it is to define gangs. At least where I come from, these "violent criminal enterprises" aren't usually defined by tattoos or colors. It's more often folks you grew up around, see everyday, and try (but often fail) to make money with -- by any means necessary. To say that there's an organized and lucrative effort at hand is probably overstating a problem that could, maybe slowly, be solved with jobs. And even if you concede that your neighbor or cousin may be running afoul of the law, banning them from the neighborhood seems like a terribly reactionary and short-lived approach. But, again, maybe that's precisely the point.