Fighting so-called organized crime is not easy. When it comes to criminal street gang activity, preventing it through gang injunctions actually has worked, according to at least one study.
According to the Los Angeles Police Department, a gang injunction is a restraining order against a group. It is a civil suit that seeks a court order declaring the gang’s public behavior a nuisance and asking for special rules directed toward its activity. Injunctions can address the neighborhood’s gang problem before it reaches the level of felony crime activity. But there is a cost: constitutional rights. In November 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that city of Orange police and Orange County prosecutors violated the Constitution by enforcing a gang injunction against residents of Orange County. Due to the court rulings, the Oxnard Police Department is considering alternatives to the gang injunctions that the department, after over a decade, suspended in late April/early May. On Tuesday, July 17, Oxnard Police Department sought Oxnard City Council’s approval of an ordinance establishing “gang membership determination” hearings that would impose restrictions for those who met the criteria. The City Council tabled the matter in lieu of public input. There are several things to consider over this issue.
According to the study “Do Gang Injunctions Reduce Violent Crime? Four Tests in Merseyside, UK,” published in December 2017 in the Cambridge Journal of Evidence-Based Policing, injunctions resulted in significant decreases in criminal gang activity. The study focused on the criminal histories of 36 members of four gangs for a 36-month period before and a 36-month period after their court-ordered injunctions. The findings: Individual criminal offences dropped by 70 percent in the three years after the gang injunctions. Fewer criminal events were attributed to 92 percent of the individuals in the second three-year period than in the first, while only 8 percent increased their detected activity.
The Cambridge study seems like valid proof that the injunctions are effective, at least in England. But that study didn’t consider the cost to personal rights.
In December, the L.A. Times reported in “Thousands freed from L.A. gang injunctions that controlled their movements, friendships, even dress choices” the severity of the restrictions imposed via gang injunctions, especially for people who claim they were not in a gang. In L.A. roughly 8,900 people were restricted by gang injunctions, but 7,300 were released from them last year after a purge by the L.A. District Attorney in the midst of the debate of the constitutionality of gang injunctions. An Echo Park resident who said he was not a gang member relayed that “he was prohibited from associating in public with his father and two of his childhood friends. He couldn’t wear a Los Angeles Dodgers jersey, despite living less than a mile from Dodger Stadium, because the team’s gear was considered gang paraphernalia under the injunction,” according the L.A. Times story. It’s also unclear if lifting the injunctions resulted in higher criminal gang activity since then.
In Oxnard, there were 368 gang members served with one of the two gang injunctions. Under the proposed ordinance for gang determination, the criteria would include any, several or all of the following:
Any gang-related tattoos
Made any admissions to gang membership
Sustained any gang-related arrests or convictions
Been observed at gang-related gatherings
Been witnessed making any gang-related gestures
Associated with other known gang members
Spray painted or written any gang-related markings
The criteria, however, to identify current gang members is similar to criteria of the original 2005-2006 Oxnard gang injunctions criteria.
Going down such a similar path that stirred the lawsuits about the constitutionality of the injunctions seems like a counterproductive use of time. Further, the 2015 National Gang Report by the FBI, a study of gang activity nationally in the prior two years, concluded that street gangs “do not show signs of decreasing membership nor declining activity.” As for Oxnard gang activity, the VCStar reported in September 2017 that lack of localized crime data makes the effectiveness of the gang injunctions difficult to measure. Surely, injunctions have been a standard for a long time, so what is the evidence currently being used to prove their efficacy?
Oxnard Police Chief Scott Whitney, the City Council, city leaders and the community at large should discuss alternatives that have actually proven to work in the United States or try new ideas, given the detrimental effects of restricting personal rights protected by the Constitution. Perhaps the best people to talk to are the people who have been impacted by the prior injunctions. Seeking to understand may lead to a viable solution.
We look forward to progressive ideas that better address the needs of residents who feel that gangs are their only hope. And for the rest involved in the matter, punishing people who fit a stereotype but are not the stereotype is wholly unfair and unjust.