Injunction has community feeling handcuffed
Separating family ties from implications of gang affiliation can be hard in Jordan Downs.
By Sandy Banks
Times Staff Writer
April 28, 2006
Jordan Downs is a close-knit community where parking lots double as playgrounds for swarms of rambunctious kids, grown men call older women “auntie,” and neighbors trust one another enough to wander in and out of each other’s unlocked homes.
Jordan Downs is also a notorious public housing project in Watts considered by the Los Angeles Police Department to be so dangerous that officers are allowed to conduct “foot beat” patrols from the safety of their cars and the department is installing outdoor surveillance cameras to monitor crime.
The project is the home turf of the Grape Street Crips, one of the area’s oldest black gangs, and has the highest rate of violent crime among the city’s public housing projects. In January alone, police tallied 19 gang-related shootings and seven homicides in and around the 700-unit complex.
The LAPD has intensified its war on gangs with stepped-up patrols and tough enforcement of a year-old court injunction that allows the arrest of Grape Street Crips if they congregate in the project or on surrounding streets.
But the campaign is proving a tough sell in some quarters of the complex, where extended families go back for generations, street gang ties are tangled and deep, and relations between residents and police have been marked by a history of conflict.
Targeting gang members may seem like a straightforward strategy. But in Jordan Downs, the line between good kid and gangster can be frustratingly unclear.
Police officers “wouldn’t know a gang member from a Boy Scout in that community,” civil rights lawyer Connie Rice said. “Anybody who’s ever said hello to anybody in a gang is [considered] ‘affiliated.’ ”
Delvon Cromwell, 26, is a Jordan Downs resident who, along with all three of his brothers, is on the injunction’s expanding list.
“This is a tight-knit community,” Cromwell said. “There’s a lot of us who used to gangbang but haven’t done anything for years.”
Today, he works with community gang prevention programs, trying to “show the younger guys a better way to live,” he said. “But you can’t even come out and sit on your porch and talk to anybody” without risking arrest.
Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the area, said her office has been deluged with complaints from residents who say officers’ heavy-handed tactics are saddling young men with arrest records and increasing hostility toward the police. At her prodding, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo have pledged to review the injunction process.
“It’s different than [applying an injunction to] a park or other public place,” Hahn said. “This is your home. It’s difficult not to associate with or be seen with somebody when it’s your brother, your neighbor, your family member.”
The original Grape Street injunction applied to 16 gang members, listed by name, and granted police permission to add others who met at least two of the LAPD’s nine “gang membership criteria,” which include tattoos, nicknames and style of dress.
But in Jordan Downs, countless teenage boys sport tattoos, baggy clothes are a fashion statement, and kids tend to acquire family nicknames long before they reach their teens.
More than 240 names have been added to the court order in the last nine months, and 175 arrests have been made for alleged injunction violations â€” misdemeanors that carry a possible $1,000 fine and six-month jail term.
“There is no conspiracy to get everybody you can on this gang injunction,” said LAPD Sgt. Timothy Pearce, who heads the gang detail in Jordan Downs.
“The people that are on there are gang members. They may not have a record, but they’re with the wrong people â€¦ in the wrong placesâ€¦. We look at the totality of circumstances.”
“Totality of circumstances,” however, can convey different meanings to those inside and outside of Jordan Downs, a bleak collection of aging barracks-style apartments where school failure and joblessness leave hundreds of young men aimless and idle.
Three tattooed guys in baggy pants, hanging out in the parking lot, might be gang members acting as drug lookouts or buddies talking about the Laker game. A former gangbanger launching a youth basketball league might be lauded as a role model by parents but considered a gang recruiter by police.
Some residents concede the project seems quieter since the injunction went into effect. But others say tension still exists. “When people see the police, they get to calling everybody, saying, ‘Get in the house!’ ” said Nefateri Thomas, 22. “You see them running, you’d think they committed a crime. But they haven’t done nothing. They’re just running from the injunction.”
Gang injunctions have evolved from their early days, when they typically targeted a handful of identified gang members. “Now they’ve gotten to the point where they say ‘ â€¦ and anybody else,‘ ” said Malcolm Klein, a USC emeritus professor of sociology who has spent 40 years studying gangs. “It’s an open invitation to expand the notion of who is vulnerableâ€¦. A single stop [by police] can qualify someone as a gang member.”
Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, who commands the LAPD’s South Bureau, said the department is “trying to respond to the vast majority of the community who are sick and tired of being victimized by young black men who don’t care who they hurt or maim.”
“Is there collateral damage?” Paysinger said. “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.
“But I would strongly assert there are a lot of young men out there in Jordan Downs who make it from home to school and back every day without getting stopped by the police.”
Until last year, Jordan High School senior Rashad Newsome was one of those.
Newsome, 19, has a part-time job and plans to attend junior college this fall. He has been ranked by college football coaches as one of the nation’s top high school fullbacks.
He is also, at least officially, a member of the Grape Street Crips.
Last August, he said, LAPD officers stopped him and three teammates as they walked back to the complex from football practice and asked if they were on the injunction. None were, he said. Officers asked their names and nicknames, he said, then told them to lift their shirts to check for tattoos.
Newsome has a nickname, “Dooley,” given to him by family members so long ago, he said, that he can’t remember why or when. The name is tattooed on his arm â€” but he has never belonged to a gang, he said.
The four football players were taken by police to the Southeast Area station and served with copies of the injunction, adding them to the list of restricted gang members, he said.
Since then, Newsome has been arrested twice, once when he was walking home from work. He says he was alone, but police say he was with two men arrested near him. Another time, he was arrested as he left the project’s computer center with neighbor Carell Johnson, 17, who is also on the injunction.
“The boys had just finished their homework,” said Carell’s aunt, Jordan Downs resident Emma Williams. “They had to write a paper, and the police arrested them â€¦ took Dooley to jail and Carell to [juvenile hall].”
No charges have been filed against Newsome in either arrest. Carell is due in juvenile court May 3, Williams said, but she hopes the case will be dismissed “when the judge sees Carell’s report card. He’s got a 3.25 [grade point average] and he’s heading for college, Cal State Fresno, in July.”
Former LAPD gang Officer Steve Strong said such cases are not uncommon. Strong is a private investigator who retired from the department 10 years ago and now testifies â€” primarily for the defense â€” in gang prosecutions.
“You have some officers who think everybody in the neighborhood is an active gang member, some who just don’t like anybody questioning their authority â€¦ [and others] who get in a personality conflict with kids in the neighborhood,” Strong said.
“They’re wasting too much time on peripheral nobodies, while the hard-core [gang members] are still running rampant.”
But Pearce, the sergeant who heads the gang detail, says he can tick off a list of peripheral nobodies â€” “really nice, respectful kids” â€” who slid into gang life and wound up in prison or dead. “[For] the guys who are lightweights, getting on the injunction might be the best thing to happen to them, the thing that forces them away from gang life.”
Or it can be the thing that forces them toward that life, said Cromwell, the former gang member. “You’ve got these young guys, trying to stay out of trouble, but they keep getting arrested anyway,” he said. “So they say, ‘I might as well.’ ”
Jordan Downs resident Tryon Byrd was added to the injunction in September when he was a passenger in a car stopped by police for having no license plate. A month later, court records show, Byrd was arrested on suspicion of violating the injunction. One week later, on Nov. 1, he was arrested again on an alleged injunction violation.
When the Nov. 1 case went to trial last month, police testified they targeted Byrd because he was wearing baggy clothes and “loitering” with other gang members in an area frequented by Grape Street Crips. They told the court Byrd admitted a history of gang membership that goes back 14 years.
But Byrd, who is 23 and a student at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, said he never told police he belonged to a gang. “I was like, ‘I don’t gangbang,” he said in court.
Records show he has one offense as an adult â€” a ticket received for riding the Blue Line without paying the fare.
Byrd told the judge he was walking alone to the project’s store when an officer “swooped up.” People were walking by, “as in a normal community â€¦ but I wasn’t talking to nobody,” he said.
Superior Court Judge Kevin L. Brown believed Byrd and administered a tongue-lashing to the two officers who testified.
“I smell a rat here,” Brown said of one officer’s account. “I do not believe his testimony.” He called the other officer “very unprofessional” for giving a “flippant” answer to a question about Byrd’s arrest.
Three days after the case was dismissed, Byrd was arrested a third time for allegedly violating the injunction. He has pleaded not guilty again.
Among longtime residents of Jordan Downs, almost everyone knows or is related to someone with gang ties, and friendships often straddle the line.
That means the injunction can make it illegal for brothers to ride together in the family car or for classmates to walk to school in groups. Even a family picture of two cousins mugging for the camera can wind up in a police evidence log.
“You take two boys who have known each other all their lives,” said Adriana McNally, an administrator in South Los Angeles for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Their families know each other. They went to Grape Street School together. They weren’t gang members there, but the road divided. One kid focused on his schoolwork, on staying out of trouble. The other took the wrong roadâ€¦. But they didn’t not become friends.”
In a neighborhood so dominated by gangs â€” there are 15 represented at Jordan High â€” there are practical reasons to sustain friendships as well.
“It presents a certain amount of protection if people know you’re friendly with a [gang member],” McNally said. “[If] you go around and snub your noses, like you look down on them, you might not take another breath. But if you’re collegial â€” ‘What’s up, Homie?’ â€” people will leave you alone.”
Critics of the injunction’s enforcement say Jordan Downs doesn’t need tougher policing but more and better-trained officers and more comprehensive community services.
“I don’t blame the cops in this situation,” said Rice, the civil rights lawyer, who has been enlisted by Los Angeles officials to evaluate the city’s gang prevention efforts. “There aren’t enough of them; the only way they can police is by amplifying their power through these constant stops. That says, ‘We’re here, we’re in control, these are our streets.’
“They wish they had a community behind them, but they don’t. There is open hostility at this pointâ€¦. We’re bucking up a reality that is so far gone, you have to ask yourself what sense this mak