When a Ventura County Superior Court judge approved the implementation of an injunction against the Oxnard street gang Colonia Chiques in June 2005, public opinion was deeply divided. Proponents argued that instituting a curfew and making illegal the things that sustain gang activity — congregating outside, throwing hand signals, wearing certain clothes — within a 6.6-mile “safety zone” was a necessary step toward curbing a serious problem that has plagued the city for generations. Opponents argued it would turn Oxnard, or at least part of it, into a quasi-police state, and that simply locking up gang members doesn’t address the social issues that lead people to join gangs in the first place.
It’s now been seven months. The question today: Is it working?
Well, it depends on who you ask. Ask Karen Wold, deputy district attorney for the county of Ventura, and she’ll describe a community freed from the grips of constant fear. Although statistics regarding crime in Oxnard in 2005 won’t be available until the end of January, Wold is already declaring the injunction a success.
“The people who live in the community that I’ve spoken to say gang members are not hanging out on the street anymore,” she says. “The reason we brought the injunction in the first place was the constant hanging around of gang members and the crimes of opportunity that were creating this problem. Their visibility has been reduced to the point where nobody is seeing gang members out anymore.”
Francisco Romero, however, tells a different story.
“Nothing has changed. It’s just another day out there,” says the 30-year-old Colonia resident, referencing a murder that recently occurred in the city. Romero is a participant in Chiques Community Coalition Organizing For Rights Equity, Employment and Education (CORE), a group that campaigned against the injunction. “What it comes down to is that violence will continue to permeate if we don’t, in a serious way, look at other measures that are not punitive.”
Who’s painting the more accurate picture here? Without any figures, it’s hard to determine.
What is known is that, currently, 125 of the estimated 1,000 Colonia Chiques have been served under the injunction. Those are the only people who can be arrested for violating the terms of the injunction, which are treated as misdemeanors and carry a maximum sentence of six months. A number of factors go into determining who gets served, including criminal history, past admissions of gang membership, even the possession of tattoos proclaiming gang affiliation, Wold says. Individuals can be removed from the list over time if they manage to stay out of trouble.
Since the injunction became permanent, police have made 45 arrests for safety zone violations, and all of them have been successfully prosecuted, according to Neail Holland, a detective with the Oxnard Police Department specializing in gang investigations. Of those violations, the most frequent has been “association,” a term defined as any public interaction — walking, driving, sitting, standing — between two known gang members. Wold says such prohibitions are designed to limit the gang’s ability to intimidate the neighborhood. But Romero believes the association rule punishes people for what is, in and of itself, innocent behavior.
“You shouldn’t be put in jail for saying ‘What’s up’ to your friends,” he says. “It should be for actions that are not innocent, like hanging out on the street selling drugs together, something nobody wants for the community.”
Romero adds that a heightened threat of incarceration isn’t a long-term solution to the gang problem. “If you end up in jail, once you get locked down, it’s a whole different ballgame. Usually, you don’t come out rehabilitated; you come out with less skills and less viable alternatives to change your life.”
Wold agrees that other methods such as outreach programs and economic revitalization are important in stamping out the gang mindset, but says the injunction can be another tool in accomplishing that goal. “People don’t want to have these restrictions in their life. They say they’d rather just do something else. It makes gangs less attractive.”
With the injunction now set in stone for the foreseeable future, Romero and others who opposed the order are preparing to organize within its framework. CORE is setting up a system to monitor the enforcement of the injunction. The group is also putting together a national conference on gang injunctions in Oxnard, tentatively scheduled to take place sometime in the spring. Most importantly from his perspective, Romero is to restart Keys to Empower Youth in the System, a program that helps underprivileged youth finds jobs and register for college. Coincidentally, some kids in the program have been served as part of the injunction, Romero says.
For Romero, the silver lining to life under the gang injunction is that it has increased the public dialogue on how to effectively solve what everyone, on either side of the debate, agrees is an issue for the city that must finally be dealt with.