Politics in the Street,The Debate That Matters on Gang Injunctions
Politics in the Street
The Debate That Matters on Gang Injunctions
By: Joseph Trevino, May 25-31, 2001
Some flash signs, others sell drugs, and many inspire fear. Here, in a 10-block area along Alvarado Street in Westlake, some 18th Street gang members are reclaiming their turf amid the fortunetellers and swap-meet-style shops that used to be movie theaters.
Once targeted by a court
injunction that kept them from
congregating, 18th Streeters
are bucking for control of the
low-income and mostly
immigrant streets of Westlake and Pico-Union. Some
business owners said that street toughs have become more
brazen since the injunction was lifted in the wake of the
Rampart police scandal.
“They [gang members] feel like they are calling the shots
now,” said an Alvarado business owner from El Salvador
who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “There
wasn’t much gang activity when the injunction was in place.
But after the Rampart scandal, gang members feel more free
Gang injunctions have become a political issue in the debates
between Los Angeles mayoral candidates James K. Hahn
and Antonio Villaraigosa. Hahn, the city attorney, believes
that injunctions are a key weapon in undermining the power of
street gangs, while Villaraigosa says that enforcement tactics
should also include social programs to help steer young
people away from criminal life.
Hahn stresses that his work in
bringing injunctions against some
of the nation’s largest and toughest
gangs gives him the edge when it
comes to reducing crime. On the
other hand, Villaraigosa, who went
from a street-fighting Boyle
Heights youth to speaker of the
state Assembly, believes that
young people can overcome the
lure of crime with good counseling
and a second chance.
Out on the streets, far from the campaign rhetoric, the debate
takes on a different tone.
About a dozen residents of the Westlake and Pico-Union
areas, which are part of the territory covered by the Rampart
station, said that the injunctions may not have solved the gang
problem, but they did manage to keep some of the most
troublemaking gang members in line.
“From one to 10, I give them [the injunctions] a 10,” said a
Westlake resident who asked not to be identified. “We are
the ones who are living here and the ones that saw that things
were much calmer back then.”
It was a mistake to lift the 18th Street injunction, said an
Alvarado business owner. “In my country, police are corrupt,
but criminals fear them. Not here,” he said, indicating some
men outside his window who were making signs at cars. “The
next mayor should definitely enforce stricter laws against
Twelve injunctions have been filed by Hahn’s office since
1987, with the latest court order enacted three weeks ago
against the Pacoima Project Boys. In September 1999, the
City Attorney’s Office asked a judge to lift the injunctions
against the 18th Street Gang in Pico-Union and Jefferson
Park because of fear that they were tainted by the testimony
of corrupt Rampart police officers.
Villaraigosa is not totally against
injunctions, but he believes their
effectiveness is overstated. They are
useful police tactics, but fail to help
break the constant cycle of youths
joining gangs, said spokesman Ace
Smith. He added that Hahn uses the
lawsuits as a political ploy to scare the
electorate into voting for him.
“They [injunctions] are one of those
things that sound very tough, but how
do we start getting to the root causes?” said Smith, who
criticized injunctions for having only short-term effects on a
community. “And the greatest short-term effect is that it
creates good press conferences.”
Throughout California, 34 injunctions have been ordered
against gangs, with more planned in the city of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles County and several cities, such as Pasadena,
also have used them. Marty Vranicar, head of the City
Attorney’s gang unit, said their usefulness far outweighs the
criticism. They are especially good at making life hard for
“Obviously, to run a narcotics operation you need to have a
number of individuals out there: the seller, the person who is
doing the lookout, and the person who is picking up the dope
and the money,” Vranicar said. “You can have a large impact
if you can tie those people together and prevent them from
being out there.”
Injunctions also diminish a gang’s intimidating presence by
keeping it from gathering in large numbers, Vranicar added.
Residents are more likely to stand up to street toughs when
no fellow gang members are around to help them out.
“The difference between one person trying to hassle a citizen
and three gang members hassling the citizen is a quantum
leap,” Vranicar said. “The gang gets its power from its ability
to intimidate a community; their collective presence is what
can really bring an oppressive clout over the community.”
Injunctions are not enough to keep gangs from tearing up a
community, said William “Blinky” Rodriguez, whose
16-year-old son was shot and killed in 1990 in a drive-by
attack in Sylmar. A member of the Victory Outreach
Ministries, Rodriguez managed to forgive the killers of his son,
and has dedicated his life to bringing peace among rival gangs.
“Injunctions sometimes work up to a point, but it can’t just be
suppression; there’s got to be a balanced approach,” said
Rodriguez, who heads a gang-counseling center in the San
Fernando Valley. “This is a Band-Aid solution.”
No clear solution is in sight for the gang problem, but a good
start would be for residents, gang members and
law-enforcement officers to get together and talk, Rodriguez
said. All angles should be discussed, even faith-based
solutions, which he believes are some of the best ways to
steer youths from a life of crime. “Ultimately, when I forgave
the three guys who murdered my son, it was because of my
faith,” Rodriguez said. “I had to walk it the way I talked it.”
For Pico-Union resident William Portillo, a Bible was what
led him to leave the gang life. At the age of 19, he found
himself in the Los Angeles County Jail for armed robbery.
After being involved in a skirmish between Latino and
African-American inmates, Portillo was sent to solitary
confinement and given a Bible. There, in the loneliness of his
cell, Portillo pledged that if God would free him from a
possible 16-year sentence, he would leave his gang and
consecrate his life to doing good.
Shortly thereafter, Portillo’s sentence was reduced to seven
months through a county program. Ten years later, he now
heads Prevención y Rescate, an anti-gang program based at
Pico-Union’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church.
Portillo and a group of 30 ex–gang members walk and preach
in Pico-Union’s and East Los Angeles’ toughest
neighborhoods. Injunctions sound good, he said, but gangs
have ways of getting around them.
“Gang members laugh at them,” Portillo said. “What has
happened now is that the older gang members who are
named in the injunctions just move to another place and make
younger gang members, called ‘little gangsters,’ do the work
Besides preaching, Prevención y Rescate also tries to have
gang members remove their tattoos and to place them in jobs.
Parents, especially in the immigrant communities, are often
most in need of counseling.
“When parents from Mexico and other countries come here,
they are often blinded by material things. They focus on a new
car or a home, and both of them work like crazy to make
money,” Portillo said. “They often forget the most important
thing, which is their children. No nanny will take the place of
the parents, so when their children are ensnared by gangs, it’s
Often, community programs designed to help gang members
work on only one aspect of the problem, Portillo noted.
Socially oriented programs, like sports activities or finding
jobs for youths, more often than not lack spiritual or
psychological counseling even when they are faith-based,
while some church-based methods fall short of offering both
social and pragmatic alternatives to the gang life.
Jeffrey Grogger, a professor in the department of policy
studies at UCLA, conducted a two-year study on injunctions.
He concluded that their greatest success has been in helping
to reduce violent crimes by 5 percent to 10 percent in the
targeted areas. In “The Effects of the Los Angeles County
Gang Injunctions on Reported Crime,” he states that this is
mostly due to a decrease in aggravated assaults.
“There are many aspects of these injunctions that aren’t
necessarily measured by reported crime statistics,” Grogger
said. “I can’t say anything about how they affect graffiti or
how in practice they affect loitering by gang members.”
Crime statistics went up almost 40 percent in the Westlake
and Pico-Union areas in the months after the injunction was
lifted. The latest statistics show that crime has decreased,
except for violent crimes; more than half of the 16 homicides
occurring from the beginning of the year to May 12 are
attributed to gangs, said Rampart Captain Michel Moore.
New anti-gang units have replaced the disbanded CRASH
units, Moore said, and their success will in large part depend
on support from communities. Rampart Station is currently
working with many community groups, as well as trying to
support prevention programs. “We have substantial
challenges ahead of us,” said Moore, who is trying to have a
new injunction filed against the 18th Street gang. “We believe
that by pursuing and obtaining an injunction we can suppress