Gang injunction splits Hawaiian Gardens



CRIME: Some say order and its restrictions are sorely needed. A smaller group warns that people are branded at whim of deputies.

By Tracy Manzer, Press-Telegram Staff Writer
Posted: 08/01/2009 09:22:58 PM PDT

HAWAIIAN GARDENS — Mention the gang injunction that targets one of the area’s most notorious gangs and you’re likely to get one of two very distinct responses.

Residents and business owners typically react enthusiastically, saying the small city of less than one square mile was in dire need of cleaning up. Some add that their only complaint is that it took authorities this long to get the injunction against the gang — Varrio Hawaiian Gardens.

“The people who are complaining about this injunction are the gang members and their families,” said resident Victor Alvares. “They’ve been in the gang for many generations, to them it’s normal, they don’t get that you can live without gangs. To them (gangs are) the only way to survive.”

There is, however, a smaller yet extremely vocal group of residents who oppose the injunction, which was put together by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office based on investigations by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The group also is challenging a federal investigation that focused on alleged leaders of the gang and its alleged ties to the Mexican Mafia.

They say the injunction is merely an excuse for law enforcement to racially profile the predominantly Hispanic community and to harass family and friends of gang members.

They have accused sheriff’s officials of destroying complaints and say deputies are often crude and overly aggressive in their contact with the community.

“There is no public trust,” the Rev. Barry Bruce said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

Members of the community are branded gang members at the whim of deputies, he said.

The injunction has become little more than a tool of “abuse, prejudicial behavior and racial profiling … the treatment we have received is hideous,” he said.

Deputy District Attorney Deanne Castorena and sheriff’s Capt. Christy Guyovich dispute the pastor’s allegations and say that the purpose of the injunction is to undermine the alleged gang’s control of the community.

Simply put, a gang injunction is a court-issued restraining order prohibiting gang members from participating in certain activities. It’s based on the legal theory that gang activity constitutes a public nuisance that prevents law-abiding community members from living peacefully.

In this case, members of Varrio Hawaiian Gardens and VHG associates are served with the injunction, or put on notice that they are included in the injunction, by sheriff’s deputies.

The VHG injunction includes a litany of restrictions, including orders that those served cannot congregate with other gang members in public, cannot participate in gang crimes or activities, dress like gang members, ride bicycles (unless it’s to work, school or church) and hang out on street corners.

Those in violation are subject to a misdemeanor charge and can be jailed up to six months and fined up to $1,000, though deputies in the field say the overcrowding of jails means those arrested typically serve no more than 30 days and juvenile offenders are rarely held more than a weekend, if even overnight.

Evidence necessary

No one can be included in the injunction without evidence proven in court that the person is a member of the gang or strongly associated, Castorena said.

Since the injunction has been put in place, about six people have been removed from the order because they were either wrongly identified or there was not enough evidence to include them, she said.

Another resident who has followed all the proper channels for challenging his inclusion may be removed from the injunction soon, she said.

She is quick to add that anyone excused from the injunction later found to be a gang member will be served again.

While the federal investigation concentrated on the gang’s leadership and worst offenders, the injunction is designed to make the gang as unattractive as possible for impressionable youth and for members on the fringe, Castorena said.

Guyovich, who commands the Lakewood Station, which patrols Hawaiian Gardens and four other cities, has attended at least half a dozen community or city hall meetings to explain those points.

At least three city council meetings, she has given presentations on how the injunction is enforced and how residents can file complaints and/or have their names removed from the injunction.

The most recent council meeting, held Tuesday, was also attended by Sheriff Lee Baca, who vowed to hold a series of community meetings until all concerns were addressed. The first meeting was held Saturday and there will be others Aug. 15 and Aug. 22.

In addition to the outreach efforts of Guyovich and Baca, another four town hall meetings were attended by Guyovich’s predecessor.

Yet tension still runs high.

Community divided

A July 21 town hall meeting, attended by roughly 200 people, showed how sharply divided some of those in the small community have become. As one group hissed and heckled sheriff’s deputies another group shouted at the opposition to be quiet.

Castorena, who was at that contentious meeting, has attended at least four others in the city over the past two years, since the preliminary injunction was put in place in 2007.

She has authored a number of injunctions in the county during her career and has never seen a reaction quite like the one in Hawaiian Gardens, she said.

“I did injunctions in Pasadena, including one for a black gang there that the NAACP had questions about,” the prosecutor said.

After the meeting, the leaders of the civil rights group ended up working with Castorena to put together another injunction against a Hispanic gang that was targeting black members of the community, she said.

In her experience, the majority of communities work with authorities to ensure the success of injunctions. That is why injunctions tend to result in a 10 to 50 percent reduction of crime, she said.

In Hawaiian Gardens, crime has dropped steadily since the preliminary injunction was enforced, she and Guyovich told residents at the July 21 meeting. “The crime is really down in this city compared to other areas,” the captain said.

But although injunctions are becoming more common – there are more than 50 in Los Angeles County and more than 75 statewide – they still are not part of the average person’s nomenclature, Castorena said.

“I understand people’s frustrations that the gang bears the name of their city … that this injunction feels like a label,” she said.

A wide net

To help residents understand it’s not an attack on the town, Castorena and sheriff’s deputies stress the injunction covers a larger region than the city of Hawaiian Gardens, including portions of Cypress, Lakewood, Long Beach and Orange County.

When Operation Knock-Out was kicked off in June, a legion of more than 1,400 local, state and federal officers and agents swept through seven counties, hitting 81 locations and arresting hundreds of people.

During the sweep, authorities confiscated 183 firearms, more than $1 million in cash, 33 pounds of methamphetamine, 11 pounds of marijuana, 8 ounces of cocaine and 7 ounces of heroin, officials said at the July 21 meeting.

A second raid in early July saw 24 locations in four counties searched.

So far, those efforts have seen 200 federal indictments issued and another 140 gang members convicted through the DA’s office.

Those opposed, however, insist the issue goes far beyond that of image, and the benefits cited by law enforcement, if true, come at too high a price.

Barry Bruce and his wife, Terryl, run a local church called The Way Out Ministries that include youth groups, a school and community services. The couple insist members of their congregation have been the recipients of threats and slurs from deputies and accuse the sheriff’s department of turning Hawaiian Gardens into a “war zone.”

The pastor says that 17 complaints have been filed since the injunction first was put in place. Guyovich says prior to last week she had received only two formal complaints.

A packet with another four complaints was delivered by Terryl Bruce to the Lakewood Station shortly before the July 21 meeting, Guyovich said.

Deputies reviewing those documents – some of which date back to incidents two years ago – were unable to reach the complainants because invalid phone numbers and/or addresses were given, she said July 21.

That answer drew a violent reaction from the audience, who peppered the discussion with jeers and taunts. Some residents cursed when names of deputies assigned to the city were mentioned. At one point a man shouted that he wanted to know when the officers would be served with an injunction since they were members “of the biggest gang of all.”

Veronica Amaro gave a heartfelt speech asking why the injunction wasn’t put in place until after Deputy Jerry Ortiz was gunned down in 2005, starting her address by reading a long list of names of people killed in gang violence.

She went on to blast deputies for harassing her grandmother, whose home was among the many served during Operation Knock-Out, and for detaining her sister for more than an hour and a half. While at her grandmother’s home, she claimed, deputies looked at a photo of one of her brothers in his military uniform.

“They asked my grandmother if my brother was a gang member before going into the Corps,” she said.

“Were you guys in a gang before going into the police academy? That’s sick,” she exclaimed as the audience cheered, clapped and whistled.

Deputies assigned to the city said afterward that Amaro failed to mention she has at least one male relative who is a VHG gang member. And gang membership is now a common, though unfortunate, reality in the military, they said.

Castorena acknowledged the 2005 murder of Ortiz did factor into the injunction, but Ortiz’s slaying was not the sole reason for the legal action, she assured, noting the large number of homicides linked to the gang as well as its history of drug- and gun-running, robberies, assaults and murders.

When Amaro’s grandmother talked with Castorena one-on-one during a break at the meeting, she asked that deputies stop coming to her home. The prosecutor was polite yet firm, telling the woman the searches will continue as long as she allows her grandson, a gang member, to live there or list it as his address.

Guyovich told the crowd her department is working hard to provide the community with ways to avoid the injunction, including anti-gang programs geared toward youths.

Letters to parents

The sheriff’s department is now drafting letters to parents of minors served by deputies so that they will know their child is included in the injunction, something that is not required by law, she and Castorena said.

A local deputy, Deputy Ernest Bille, has come up with an anti-gang program specifically designed for Hawaiian Gardens youths and another program, VIDA, is also available to parents and their children free of charge, Guyovich said.

To qualify, participants must be minors without violent felonies on their records. To graduate, kids and their parents must attend regular sessions, she said.

A gang member also must show he or she has not been active for at least one year, they can’t dress like a gangster and they have to be doing well in school or working, the captain said.

They must also renounce their gang membership in writing and ideally all gang-related tattoos will be removed, Castorena said.

“Many parents, once I tell them you have to be invested, start looking for another program,” Guyovich told the crowd.

“We’re not here to raise your children, we’re looking for a different way to help you to raise your children,” she said to vigorous applause.

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