Oxnard awaits word on safety zone ‘

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VC Reporter April 10, 2004

Oxnard awaits word on safety zone ‘

Opinions mixed over city ‘s gang injunction

by Stacey Wiebe

Any day now, residents of La Colonia, an Oxnard neighborhood under the magnifying glass for reportedly high numbers of gang crimes, will find out if a gang injunction Ventura County ‘s first will be their newest permanent neighbor. Having lived with a temporary injunction in a 6.6-square-mile area of the city called the safety zone since last June, residents have firsthand awareness of the order, which prohibits people identified as gang members from associating with other gang members, wearing gang clothing, intimidating witnesses, possessing alcohol or making gang signs. They are also required to adhere to a 10 p.m. curfew. A four-week hearing in Ventura County Superior Court ended March 25, when County Superior Court Judge Frederick Bysshe said that in two to three weeks he would announce his decision concerning the permanence of the injunction.

Some say the injunction works. Others say it is a disaster waiting to happen.

Armando Vazquez, 53, was reared within the boundaries of one of the state ‘s first gang injunctions, in the San Fernando Valley. Vazquez argues that injunctions steamroll civil liberties and take advantage of Mexican immigrants and the poor by cracking down on crime without solving its causes. An injunction is a pathetic Band-Aid, said Vazquez, now an Oxnard resident of 14 years. It ‘s not going to work, but it appeases the masses a bit.

Vazquez and Deborah DeVries of Oxnard, 55, work with disadvantaged and at-risk youth in the Keys to Empower Youth in the System, or KEYS, program. Vazquez said that because too many political leaders have lost their way and become part of the institution, it ‘s up to the public to demand its rights. We develop a backbone, he said. That ‘s what we do.

Vazquez, who calls injunctions an unconstitutional broad brush, said they do nothing to improve the lives of underprivileged youth. A young kid lives through it. I lived through it and many young people in our community will live through it, Vazquez said. It shouldn ‘t be the norm.

DeVries, who works in the safety zone, argues that the injunction is based on inconsistent criteria. A youth can be identified as a gang member based on what they ‘re wearing and where they ‘re from, she said. I am opposed to youth-on- youth violence, but I am also opposed to civil liberties being violated … . I think there are youth served with the injunction who aren ‘t gang members.

DeVries said she feels the area is more tense since the injunction was handed down, and that there are already some instances of excessive enforcement of this.

It ‘s easier to arrest someone for wearing black shoelaces than it is to go out and figure out who will commit the next homicide, DeVries said. What we need is to build trust between the community and police.

But David Keith, speaking for the Oxnard Police Department, said the safety of the public is the issue at hand and that gang violence has decreased dramatically since the injunction began. Keith said a gang member and inmate in custody wrote a letter, intercepted by correctional officers, that stated, The gang injunction is really working. I hear it ‘s a ghost town out there.

Deputy District Attorney Karen Wold agreed that there are few people on the streets these days. Wold, who participated in the hearings, said the Colonia Chiques, the roughly 1,000- member gang targeted by the injunction, began as a car club in the 1960s and has several offshoots throughout the city.

The first gang injunction was established in Los Angeles in 1987, and there are now more than 40 throughout the state, Wold said. She also said that 2003 was a record year for homicides in Ventura County and that there were 23 in Oxnard alone. That led to Oxnard police and members of the DA ‘s office to begin discussions with officials in Los Angeles who could give them the lowdown on injunctions. The county filed a lawsuit in 2004.

I think things have substantially improved, Wold said. Gang suppression officers say it ‘s hard to find gang members anymore. Wold testified that an average of 16 to 18 robberies a month were once reported in Oxnard, and that number has dropped to between six and eight. So far, 80 people identified as gang members by police have been served with the injunction. Those who have been served are subject to the injunction ‘s regulations.

When it comes to civil liberties, Wold insists that the injunction is not a violation and that its detractors are well aware of that. The California Supreme Court has already decided that it ‘s not and they know that, she said. You don ‘t have the right to associate with others for the purpose of criminal activity… . This is not something new. It ‘s only new in this county.

Wold said she participated in several ride-alongs with police before the lawsuit was filed. She said she was mad-dogged by gang members while riding as a passenger in an unmarked van and that she felt unsafe. We could have been a couple coming home from the movies. I was scared and I was sitting next to an officer with a gun.

Wold also testified that research shows that the violence will not be displaced to other areas of the city, because the Colonia Chiques are territorial.

Once Bysshe announces a tentative ruling, various parties have the right to file objections. Bysshe could choose to conduct a final hearing or simply make his final announcement, Wold said.

Alex Alonso of Los Angeles, who studies urban poverty and gangs and has published documents on the subjects said he believes that injunctions are politically motivated. Period.

Alonso, who testified at the hearing, said that there are over 1,000 gangs in Los Angeles County, but injunctions against only 30 gangs most often in more affluent neighborhoods or neighborhoods in the process of revitalization. Venice Beach, he said, is a prime example because a gang injunction was established there when

it underwent a revitalization process. Injunctions have also been placed on gangs close to Beverly Hills and the University of Southern California as well as three gangs near the Staples Center.

Alonso said statistics are shady when it comes to identifying gang crimes, because criteria can be vague.

There is good and bad to injunctions, Alonso said. The good is there are short-term benefits … (but) the injunction has nothing to prevent southside gangs from going into Colonia Chiques neighborhoods and killing them.

Alonso said there is also always the constant threat of upcoming members the youth. Seventy doesn ‘t do anything to the 930 who haven ‘t been served.

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