Gangbusters: Enjoining the Boys in the ‘Hood
May-June 1997, The American Prospect
Daniel J. Sharfstein
The city of Inglewood, population 140,000, lies in the southwest corner of the Los Angeles sprawl. It has the features of almost every other L.A. suburb—long commercial strips of burger shacks and auto body shops, low-rise neighborhoods of motel-style apartment complexes and tiny homes with tiny lawns. The city map is dominated by large open spaces. Hollywood Park racetrack and card casino attracts millions of visitors, as does the adjacent Great Western Forum, where the Lakers play home games. Just to the north is the 375-acre Inglewood Park cemetery.
One of the city’s main streets, Century Boulevard, is a straight shot west to LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport. Another, Crenshaw Boulevard, goes north through the heart of black L.A. At the intersection of these two roads is the Bottoms, a neighborhood of six blocks that has been the scene of almost 40 murders in the past decade.
Thirty-five hundred people, mostly black and Latino, live in this claustrophobic network of two-story apartments linked by alleyways and narrow streets named after past Inglewood mayors. The area sits directly under the LAX flight path; all day long, airplanes on final descent buzz the neighborhood. A Bloods gang called the Crenshaw Mafia claims the Bottoms as its turf, and police say there are about 75 active members of the CMG. Although some of its members live in other parts of town, most grew up together in the neighborhood. The gang got its name in the late 1970s because members were fans of the Godfather movies.
Not all 40 murders involved the Crenshaw Mafia: Three toddlers died at the hands of abusive parents or sitters; nobody knows who killed the assistant manager of the nearby Price Club in a September 1994 robbery that netted $15. But police blame the gang for a fair share of the killing, and rival sets have come into the area gunning for the CMG. In a July 1996 drive-by shooting, one Crenshaw Mafia member was killed and a five-year-old boy was shot in the hip. Police have also arrested CMG members for selling crack cocaine and marijuana, carrying assault rifles and semiautomatic pistols, and committing armed robberies and assaults. The Bottoms is tagged with CMG graffiti. The Cs are always crossed out to show hatred for the Crips.
With crime rates in this area consistently among the highest in the city, and with neighbors often too scared to call the police or serve as witnesses, city officials decided it was time to try a new tactic against the Crenshaw Mafia Gang.
It was time to sue them.
In late January, Inglewood became the tenth California city to use public nuisance laws to get a civil injunction restricting activities within the Bottoms by 29 alleged members of the Crenshaw Mafia Gang. The injunctions impose 25 conditions on the defendants; violating any of them is a misdemeanor that carries a sentence in California of a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Most of the prohibited activities are illegal anyway: selling drugs, throwing rocks at people or cars, fighting or gambling in public, drinking or urinating in public, vandalizing property, trespassing, possessing a dangerous weapon in public. A few provisions, however, target more ambiguous activity: carrying a pager or cellular phone, riding a bicycle, or even “congregating in any public place with any other person” for drug-dealing or other illegal purposes.
What is unambiguous about the court orders is that they give police probable cause to stop or arrest defendants for almost anything they do in a target area. Being outside with any other person is a potential offense. So is visiting a friend at his apartment, because trespassing provisions forbid defendants from being on private property without the written or oral consent of the owner or lessee. Curfew requirements mean defendants cannot be out late at night. A littering clause makes it an offense for a defendant to drop a cigarette on the ground.
Anti-gang injunctions have been used mainly in Southern California and mainly since 1994, after the Los Angeles County district attorney’s hardcore gang unit formed a special section to pursue the injunctions. Although the injunctions raise many constitutional concerns [see Randall Kennedy, "Guilty by Association," page 66], so far the courts have sided with the prosecutors. On January 30, the California Supreme Court upheld San Jose’s 1993 injunction against a Latino gang in a four-square-block community called Rocksprings. The majority opinion in People ex rel. Gallo v. Carlos Acuna et al. cited the court’s commitment to “ordered liberty” and the rights of the frightened residents of gang-infested areas:
To hold that the liberty of the peaceful, industrious residents of Rocksprings must be forfeited to preserve the illusion of freedom for those whose ill conduct is deleterious to the community as a whole is to ignore half the political promise of the Constitution and the whole of its sense. . . . Preserving the peace is the first duty of government, and it is for the protection of the community from the predations of the idle, the contentious, and the brutal that government was invented.
The court decision means that civil injunctions will likely proliferate. Just as Los Angeles is the great exporter of gang culture, so it has become a trendsetter in gang suppression policies. The L.A. County district attorney’s program for civil injunctions, the Strategy Against Gang Environments (SAGE), now employs five full-time deputy district attorneys, whom the county contracts out to local cities that want injunctions. SAGE has its own how-to manual, which cities all over the country have been requesting.
For many prosecutors, police, even the residents of embattled neighborhoods, the issue is simple: Gang injunctions immediately and dramatically reduce crime rates in the target areas. Once intimidated residents become emboldened and accustomed to cooperating with the authorities, police can then do their job more effectively. Yet are the injunctions truly, as their advocates claim, the foundation of a long-term strategy for public safety—or do they simply move the problem from one neighborhood to another? Can the police go after the named defendants without curbing the rights of other residents? What about the rights of the defendants themselves? These are legitimate questions that few public officials feel they even need to confront.
A NEW WEAPON
On a sunny morning at the end of January, District Attorney Gil Garcetti announced the Inglewood injunction at a press conference in Darby Park, just north of the Bottoms. Standing on a hill overlooking the Hollywood Park stables, flanked by city officials, police officers, and prosecutors, Garcetti had to shout over the continuous roar of jets overhead. Eight camera crews representing every local television channel crowded around, as Garcetti sounded the death knell for the Crenshaw Mafia.
“It’s time to stop the violence. It’s time to stop the fear,” said Garcetti, who barely won re-election last November. During a campaign marked by criticism of his handling of the O.J. Simpson criminal prosecution, Garcetti highlighted the gang injunctions as a great accomplishment of his tenure. “These gangs have not seen the SAGE program before,” he added. “It’s not just a temporary fix. . . . It will permanently bring down levels of crime in this neighborhood.”
Garcetti’s boast was audacious, but not empty. In Norwalk, Pasadena, Long Beach, and Lennox, SAGE injunctions had freed target neighborhoods of the gang terror that was once desperate and unrelenting. In San Jose, two neighborhoods were enjoined in 1993 and 1994. After ten months, one neighborhood saw crime drop 63 percent, and the other, 49 percent. Enforcement of the injunctions stopped while the court challenge proceeded. Now that injunctions have been upheld, the city attorney may soon seek injunctions for three additional neighborhoods.
Norwalk, a city of about 100,000 southeast of L.A., was the location of SAGE’s pilot program. An August 1994 injunction enabled law enforcement to snuff out a Latino set called the Orange Street Locos. With only 55 active members, according to police databases, OSL was the smallest of Norwalk’s five Latino gangs. But they gave sheriff’s deputies some of the most trouble.
Their four-by-five-block stretch of turf was covered with graffiti. Gang members were responsible for dozens of crimes, from car theft and drug possession to assault and armed robbery. In 1994 they started throwing Molotov cocktails in alleys and then at homes, burning out an African-American family. Neighbors constantly reported hearing shots fired, and the local elementary school actually started holding drive-by-shooting drills at recess. A bell would ring, and students would hit the blacktop.
Today, the graffiti is gone. Moms with babies in strollers move down the sidewalks, past unlicensed street vendors selling pork rinds and corn out of shopping carts. Children play basketball after school, rollerblade, and swing on the swingsets.
The neighborhood’s metamorphosis occurred almost immediately after the court order enjoined the activities of 22 OSL members. For the next ten months, the local sheriff’s station documented the injunction’s progress in weekly memos. The number of calls to the sheriff’s department went down by nearly a third, and very few of the calls were in any way related to gangs. The memos report just a few crimes committed by gang members not listed in the injunction. Only five injunction defendants were prosecuted for violating the court order.
To date, seven injunction defendants are in state prison, county jail, or juvenile hall. Eight no longer live in the area. Six live at home, including one about to be deported to Mexico. One is dead. Despite a flare-up last fall, when a rival gang member moved into the area and threw a party, the Orange Street Locos have more or less ceased to exist. The city council will soon consider a motion to rename Orange Street for two of the sheriff’s deputies who have worked intensively in the area.
PASADENA: NO BED OF ROSES
Norwalk’s experience attracted other cities to the SAGE program, but not every city could replicate its success.
Every New Year’s Day, millions of eyes are on Pasadena for the Tournament of Roses Parade and the Rose Bowl. The floral pageantry matches the genteel reputation of this city of 135,000 just northeast of L.A., a suburb of turn-of-the-century bungalows and tree-lined streets, home of Cal Tech (the California Institute of Technology) and the Norton Simon Museum.
That gentility is not on display in the briefing room of the Pasadena Police Department’s Special Enforcement Section. One entire wall is covered with customized baseball caps, each showing allegiance to a different local gang. Most of the city’s gang activity—police estimate 1,500 members in 13 active gangs—is centered just above the Rose Parade route, in the mainly black and Latino northwest section. Residents and city officials point to Halloween, 1993, as the moment Pasadena acknowledged its gang problem—when three trick-or-treaters were gunned down, mistaken for gang members.
The three Halloween killers, sentenced to death in January, were members of a small Bloods set. The first court order, in October 1995, enjoined 35 alleged members of the largest Bloods gang in the city, the Pasadena Denver Lanes (PDL). The injunction targeted a three-by-six-block area, centered around Summit Avenue, reputed to be the place to buy crack, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The black and Latino residents of this stretch describe late-night open-air gatherings of dealers, friends, and addicts; the assortment played music, yelled, drag raced, had fights, shot craps, and sometimes shot each other. In the mornings, people who looked like zombies would walk down the street, searching for rocks of cocaine dropped during the night. Residents were afraid to mow their lawns or even let their kids ride their bicycles. Some gang members tried to make residents pay to enter or exit their own driveways.
City Prosecutor Tracy Webb heard about Norwalk’s success on the radio and decided to bring SAGE to Pasadena. The city got two injunctions, one each in 1995 and 1996. Following the first court order, Pasadena police Sergeant Jim Shear wrote a memo describing an unprecedented change in the community: “The last week has netted no arrests and no calls for service.” Only a handful of people were ever prosecuted for violations of the injunction; none has been prosecuted since September 1996.
One reason for the change is that the injunctions energized the community. Residents started suing landlords who were renting to troublemakers; since then, the neighborhood association has organized numerous block cleanups, a tutoring program, and an absentee-landlord group. Another factor is that the injunctions actually scared off gang members. “It never ceases to amaze me,” says Webb. “We prosecute these guys for drive-bys, murders, rape, and they’re seemingly unfazed. As soon as we hit ‘em with a lot of paperwork, they disappear.”
But the gangs haven’t disappeared. Soon after the injunctions, PDL members started hanging out just beyond the target area, in a housing project, a park, and a strip mall. Unlike Norwalk, where highly territorial gangs live in very clearly marked neighborhoods, in Pasadena gang members live throughout the city. Police memos in November 1995 noted PDL’s shift, and where once most PDL members on probation were given stay away orders from Summit, now the orders almost exclusively name the nearby King’s Villages project. Police are having the same problem with Pasadena’s second injunction, a June 1996 court order against 26 members of the Villa Boys and Krazy Boys. These Latino gangs had been allies against two rival sets in a year-long feud that left several young men dead and several more wounded.
Pasadena, like the other injunction cities, has not studied the issue of gang displacement in any systematic way. But a map of the city in the Special Enforcement Section briefing room suggests how quickly the gangs are adapting: No longer does the map feature an overlay with different gang territories outlined. Because the gangs have been moving so much, now the police track them with pushpins.
“They know we can’t do much outside the injunction area,” says Pasadena police officer Terysa Rojas, the department’s expert on Latino gangs. “It works for the area you intend it to work for but then you just have to chase them wherever they go next. The thing is, before the injunctions, they all were hanging out in the same place. Now that they can’t hang out there, you don’t know where they are. They’re all over, and you can’t keep track of them.” Such frustrations fuel skepticism of the program. When Pasadena’s SAGE deputy district attorney started work on a new injunction to target King’s Villages, the new locus for gang activity, the city balked and did not extend her contract. Police and prosecutors say they will still enforce the injunctions in place but will not be seeking more of them.
Bernard Melekian, who became Pasadena’s police chief about the same time the city was seeking its second court order, calls the injunctions “an intellectual substitute for responsible public policy” and prefers a combination of hard police work and community services. He is reorganizing the force into one of community beat cops, with intensive presence in the city’s most crime-ridden spots. The Special Enforcement Section is targeting the hardest gang members with vigorous enforcement of probation and parole violations, and the department is starting an early intervention program with first-time juvenile offenders.
“There are aggressive enforcement ways to deal with known gang members,” Melekian says. “All we’ve done is move their hangout, which is fine if you live in the injunction area. So why don’t we enjoin the entire city?”
THROWING THE BOOK AT THEM
In Inglewood, a deputy district attorney spent months working out of an office in City Hall, taking declarations from residents and police and probation officers and compiling a list of 42 of the most active members of the Crenshaw Mafia. After the prosecutor filed the complaint for an injunction to abate a public nuisance in Los Angeles Superior Court last December, police officers started serving the defendants with a two-inch-thick stack of legal documents.
The packet included a copy of the complaint, lengthy citations of municipal code violations and supporting constitutional decisions, and the declarations by law enforcement officers detailing the history and general activities of the gang and singling out each defendant for specific wrongdoing. The judge refused to seal civilian declarations, so the prosecutor did not file them out of concern for those residents’ safety.
Gang members learned that they were going to be served with papers by listening to their police scanner. Some went to the police station to collect their packets; others went into hiding. Those who received the packet refer to it in awestruck tones as “the book.” Officers serving the papers said they didn’t know what they were for and couldn’t give any legal advice. Quite literally, the Crenshaw Mafia got the book thrown at them.
The day after Gil Garcetti’s press conference, the city of Inglewood sought a preliminary injunction in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Twelve of the defendants made the trip to the courthouse, a few miles away in Torrance. Several wore their hair in braided rows, a style popularized by Snoop Doggy Dogg. One had “104 St.,” one of the target area’s boundaries, tattooed on the back of his neck. One was wearing Calvin Klein jeans with a large label reading “CK,” an abbreviation listed in police dictionaries of gang slang with a definition of “Crip Killer.”
The defendants began by asking Judge Robert Mallano for a public defender, but the judge said no. This was a civil court, he explained. There was no guarantee of representation. They also tried to argue against the city’s request: Travon Donte Adkins, whose nickname is Lil Lunchmeat, told the judge he wanted all the police officers who made statements about him to submit to lie detector tests. But Mallano said he would be basing his decision exclusively on the written record. If the gang members had objections, he said, they should have hired a lawyer and filed written briefs before the court hearing.
By the time the judge finally granted the injunction, the defendants were stunned and angry. “None of us knew what an injunction was,” said defendant Kenneth Bell. “We thought we were going to have some public assistance. I don’t know civil cases. I’ve never been sued in my life. We got no legal aid, period. Nobody’s backing us.” Said Adkins, smarting over the suggestion that he hire a lawyer, “That’s the whole point. They know we don’t got no money.” He asked to be excused and left the courtroom shouting, “They know niggers ain’t got no money!”
Episodes like this confirm the worst suspicions of injunction critics. “You got a D.A. who’s in big trouble because he can’t win big-profile cases, and he wants to look tough on crime,” says Bert Vorhees, an attorney representing the Pasadena NAACP, who fought the PDL injunction. “The gang injunctions are perfect because they go after a group that does not have much resources. You look like you’re doing something, but you’re not doing much other than violate the civil rights of those named in the injunction and the citizens who happen to get caught in the middle.”
Reading the court orders—which list the defendants’ names along with their nicknames—one gets the sense that cities are suing cartoon characters. It’s the people versus Smiley, Lil Pookey, Goofy, Clumsy, Happy, Bam Bam, Turtle, Casper, Spanky, Smurf, Pee Wee, Snoopy, Beaver, Heckle and Jeckle. Lawyers who have represented such men in injunction proceedings and in the misdemeanor violation of court order cases decry the one-sidedness of what they see as an unholy blurring of criminal and civil proceedings.
“It’s just using a civil court to create special crimes for special people,” says Michael Ramirez-Mares, a public defender in Pasadena. “From a prosecutor’s point of view, it is an elegant solution—you’ve cut out the lawyers for the other side. But I don’t think it’s fair.”
Attorneys who favor the injunctions say they are dealing with a public nuisance, a civil harm that belongs in civil court just like any other. “Because we’re dealing with gangs, people are saying we’re prosecuting them without giving them their rights,” said Andrew Paley, a civil attorney in a private firm who has been working pro bono with the SAGE program since its inception. “If this were a fraternity at a university, and they were playing their stereos at two in the morning, having beer bashes, harassing women who walk by, and urinating in public, no one would be thinking twice about this.”
But are the two situations really comparable? The stakes are higher when the defendants are young black and Latino men and women living in underdeveloped and underserved neighborhoods. The stakes are higher when the court orders give great power to police departments that have historically mistreated minorities.
Although many defendants obtain pro bono representation or defend themselves, most do not even show up in court. When no one fights the injunction, courts can accept questionable evidence as fact, potentially dooming a more or less innocent party. Prosecutors say they compile their lists of defendants with great care, but as numerous sociologists have written and as any gang member, cop, or gang prosecutor could attest, some gangsters are harder than others. Police declarations for the injunctions describe contacts with hardened criminals—people with mile-long rapsheets, thugs who have shot at cops. The declarations also describe people who, for the most part, just hang out.
In Pasadena, the evidence against individual defendants reflects the continuum of gang involvement. While injunction requests accuse many gang members of dealing drugs or carrying weapons, they lump in many others whose sins are limited to wearing the wrong clothing or being seen with the wrong people—in other words, activities of expression and association. Jermaine Lloyd’s wrongs, for example, include only “loitering” and “admits PDL membership.” Leotha Harvey Manning: “loitering . . . associates with Michael Poole and Kaleb Hunter . . . wearing ‘P’ belt buckle.” Quincy Richard Lee Butler: “seen on bicycle . . . admits moniker of ‘Lucky’ or ‘Jones’ . . . tattoo reading ‘Baby God’ . . . loitering in streets.”
In his dissent from the California Supreme Court’s decision in the Acuna case, Justice Stanley Mosk cited a 1992 report on gang violence by the L.A. County district attorney’s office that said the L.A. Sheriff’s Department used similar criteria to estimate that 47 percent of all African-American men ages 21 to 24 are actual or suspected gang members. Mosk wrote that the city of San Jose needed more proof that some of the defendants belonged in the injunction:
The mere facts that a defendant “admitted” gang membership to a police officer or others or was seen associating with gang members or wearing gang colors or insignia, do not indicate that he or she has, or will in the future, engage in conduct amounting to a public nuisance. In my view, individual defendants may be subject to the preliminary injunction only if the City establishes a likelihood that it will succeed on the merits of its claim that he or she actively participated in the activities constituting a public nuisance, or had specific intention to do so.
If someone is just hanging out with lifelong friends and relatives—some of whom may be dealing drugs—should that person have to stop carrying a pager, riding a bicycle, or waving at cars?
WHAT PRICE FOR PUBLIC SAFETY?
Kenneth Bell says that he has been unfairly included in the Inglewood injunction. One police declaration said that a confidential informant bought drugs from him and two other men. One declaration said that he admitted that he is a member of the Crenshaw Mafia. Several other declarations describe him loitering and drinking in public. But Bell, 34, maintains that he hasn’t been involved in gang activity in more than 15 years. He says he became part of the Crenshaw Mafia before it got its name, when it was just a bunch of neighborhood boys who played football together.
“My only fault is I do drink,” he said. “When I come home from work, I’ll drink beer in front of my apartment. Maybe I can’t drink now, or maybe I have to be confined to my apartment. I don’t want to be harassed for just talking to my buddies.”
Bell owns a beeper. Even though the injunction only forbids carrying a pager with the intent to engage in drug dealing or other illegal activity—things that Bell says he doesn’t do—Bell worries he may wind up in handcuffs because of it. Judging by the way other cities have enforced the injunction, Bell can almost certainly count on being stopped by police.
Especially in the first couple of months after the injunction, police deploy heavy patrols. Prosecutors say they only single out named defendants, but of course that is not quite the case. One can easily picture the police stopping anyone who might look like a gang member, say, on a dark night, if only to confirm that he or she is not on the injunction. In truth, the police stop many more than that—just ask the residents of Summit Avenue.
“For a while, it was like watching COPS on television,” says resident Gary Taylor. “My wife and I would sit on the porch and have our entertainment. They were stopping people left and right. And 80 percent of the people needed to be stopped, either acting stupid or dressing the part.”
Taylor himself was stopped one Sunday morning on his way home from the corner store. He said he was thrown against a car and searched. “I couldn’t understand it,” he said. “I don’t even fit the profile. I’m 42 years old, a regular working man. I just had a barbecue for the neighborhood association, and police were there—maybe it was just a new officer. I didn’t think I’d get rousted like that.”
But even many victims of apparent harassment—including Taylor—stand behind the policy. In fact, the PDL’s most outspoken advocate is not a prosecutor or police officer but Eva Courtney, president and founder of the Summit Avenue Neighborhood Association. She wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times and has given countless interviews in praise of the injunction. She’s also seen the excess firsthand: “My husband was stopped three times just crossing the street to see the neighbors,” she says. “Our neighbors were being stopped. Mainly black people were being stopped. As time went by, it kind of died out, and things got better.”
Police did saturate the Summit area and stop numerous people, says Sgt. Jim Shear, but that would have happened with or without an injunction. In a heavily patrolled area that constantly attracted drug buyers, police are going to approach strangers of all races and initiate consensual searches. And because crime did go down, neighbors are willing to forgive their own unpleasant experiences with law enforcement. “At the time, yes, I was angry because I was just walking across the street,” said Larry Courtney, Eva’s husband. “But now that the bad people are off the streets, the police know who I am. Before the injunction, I didn’t come out of the house much.”
At its best, the anti-gang injunction brings an end to years of terror and allows communities to take control of their lives. At its worst, the injunction moves the gang problem next door and brings peace at the expense of liberty. It’s an easy choice for Larry Courtney: getting rousted three times by the police versus living in a neighborhood besieged by a street gang.
Unfortunately, it’s also easy for politicians. Without a doubt, neighborhoods deserve quick relief when gangs are killing people, firebombing houses, and forcing residents to live behind bars in their own homes. But now that injunctions have withstood the scrutiny of California courts, local officeholders may have little incentive to look beyond local crime statistics and seek a better policy—one that would better protect people’s rights and address the long-term causes of gang violence.
The bad people are off the streets. For more and more communities between Summit and the Bottoms, that’s where the argument ends.
Copyright © 1999 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Daniel J. Sharfstein, “Gangbusters: Enjoining the Boys in the ‘Hood,” The American Prospect no. 32, May-June 1997. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.