Stopping gang activity is a noble goal, but the end doesn’t always justify the means


Stopping gang activity is a noble goal, but the end doesn’t always justify the means
Injunctions that prohibit gang members from associating with each other can catch innocents in their web.
Dana Parsons

November 30, 2006

First come my disclaimers.

I put garden-variety street punks into a particularly loathsome category, because of how they intrude on the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of honest citizens. Harassing ordinary citizens as they walk to the corner grocery store rubs me raw, even if the person doing the harassing hasn’t really committed a crime.

I’m also for creative law enforcement. Yes, the cops have to play by the rules — but a cop with good instincts knows how to make a difference on the street without becoming a lawbreaker himself.

So, to review: I don’t like the punks that we normally associate with gang activity, and I don’t mind police trying something innovative to corral them.

Now comes the “but.”

But I always cringe a bit when I read about cops being given authority to bust street-corner guys for activities that fall under the broad heading of associating with gang members or doing things that suggest they might be gang members.

No, I don’t pace my apartment in the wee hours worrying about it, but I do fret because I’d say it’s indisputable that not everyone identified by the courts or the cops as a gang member is, in fact, a gang member. And from those faulty designations, a whole raft of potential abuses can result.

The issue is back in play because Anaheim and Santa Ana police are trying to crack the shell of a couple local gangs. Both police departments are armed with court orders that put legal clamps on all of the reputed members of the two gangs, including a prohibition on associating in public with each other, wearing gang attire or staying out after 10 p.m.

If all the order did was put the fear of God into wayward people, I’d be for it. And maybe that is the idea. But we’ve already reported that six people have been arrested in Anaheim, including a man for loitering in the designated area with two other gang members. He faces a possible six months in jail.

That is a tight clamp, especially when being identified as a gang member is hardly a DNA standard. It means that you’ve been questioned at some point by police — for any reason — that you were subsequently identified as belonging to a gang and a judge agreed.

Wanting a second opinion, I caught up with Michael Baker, who runs the Boys & Girls Clubs of Anaheim and who has 18 years of experience with the umbrella organization. His clubs represent the polar opposite of the gang experience, but that doesn’t mean Baker doesn’t understand the gang culture. Nor does it mean that someone who might be labeled a gang member hasn’t been inside his club.

I ask Baker if he worried about potential abuses. What I got in reply was a spirited and thoughtful discussion of how complex the gang issue is in Anaheim and, a rousing endorsement of the police.

“There are all kinds of issues they have to face every day,” Baker says of the local cops.

Baker says he has full confidence that Anaheim cops are simply trying to tell impressionable youngsters “that you can’t hang out with [gang members], because they are bad guys. I don’t have a problem with the Police Department discouraging kids from hanging out with other known gang members.”

His only potential concern, Baker said, is if a guilt-by-association policy would allow police to pick up a youngster who is talking unknowingly to a gang member. That, however, shouldn’t happen, because the injunction includes only people identified by the courts as gang members. That said, being called a gang member doesn’t always mean you are one — at least, not in the dangerous way the public thinks of it.

In that sense, Baker understands the gang culture all too well. He doesn’t want people taking his remarks out of context, but he notes that the same things his clubs try to instill in youngsters — belonging, usefulness, influence and confidence — are part of the gangs’ recruitment pitch and social fabric.

Therein lies the challenge for organizations truly wanting to help youngsters live a good life. And the challenge for police.

The good guys all want the same result: safety in the streets and hopeful options for youngsters. My fear is that tossing a wannabe gang member into jail — which might include a kid who fell into gang life by default or fear — might worsen his chances. As we’ve learned over and over, jail often is a primer for future criminal behavior.

Perhaps I fret too much. Baker says he tells his Boys & Girls Club members to trust the cops. In that spirit, I’ll give Baker the last word and use it as something for police to live up to:

“My concern is very minimal,” Baker says. “I know the Police Department in Anaheim … I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, it’s a top-notch department. It’s solid.”

Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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