During more than an hour of emotionally charged testimony before the Santa Ana City Council on Tuesday, about a dozen Santa Ana residents, activists and youth advocates spoke against the Orange County District Attorney’s recent request for a gang injunction against the city's Townsend Street gang.
The speakers urged the city to meet with community members and collaborate on solutions that focus on gang prevention and intervention, rather than police suppression via a gang injunction that would curtail the movement and activities of both juveniles and adults in the Townsend Street neighborhood.
“We’re not saying that [there are] no issues in Townsend,…but this is not the solution. You can’t arrest your way out of this issue,” said Gabriela Hernandez, a mental health therapist whose clients are Townsend neighborhood residents.
“There [are] root causes why kids are put into gangs. If we can address those issues and work as a collaborative, we can then start hashing these issues out. But not this way.”
Hernandez was part of a group of several dozen people who attended the meeting, including parents, youth, and activists from the Orange County-based social justice organization, Chicanos Unidos; as well as the Santa Ana-based migrant youth advocacy group, RAIZ; and the Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color initiative, which works to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed the civil lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court and seeks to create a safety zone in a .39 square mile area of the Townsend Street neighborhood with a restraining order that would restrict the activities of the Townsend Street gang, including 29 individuals named as active participants in the gang.
The gang is described in the complaint for injunctive relief as a violent, criminal, “turf-oriented Hispanic street gang” that has sold and used illegal drugs, assaulted rival gangs, and intimidated, threatened and assaulted community members.
In a memorandum submitted as part of the complaint, the district attorney’s office points to data from a roughly four-year period beginning January, 2010 that shows that Townsend Street “gang participants” have been involved in two murders, two attempted murders, 22 incidents involving the sale or possession of guns or dangerous weapons, as well as two dozen drug or paraphernalia violations.
The complaint is buttressed by hundreds of pages of evidence and declarations provided by the Santa Ana Police Department.
Spokespersons for both the police department and district attorney’s office stated that the agencies are legally prohibited from publicly discussing the complaint because the case has been sealed by the civil court, which is scheduled to hear the matter on July 29.
Last month, Superior Court Judge Franz E. Miller signed a court order to close the upcoming July 29 hearing on the matter to the public. The order states that the plaintiffs sought the closure, yet DA spokeswoman Farrah Emami told Voice of OC that her office did not seek a closed hearing.
“It’s our understanding that it’s open to the public and the information that it may be closed is an error,” said Emami. “… We never asked for it to be closed.”
However, a Superior Court spokeswoman confirmed that the court order barring the public from the hearing was filed on June 13 and has not been lifted or altered since then.
While gang injunctions are touted by law enforcement for decreasing violence in affected safety zones, legal experts have voiced concerns that the civil liberties of gang injunction defendants are being trampled upon. Meanwhile academic researchers and criminal justice experts have questioned whether the injunctions are effective and needed at a time that crime is decreasing.
In an interview, Santa Ana City Councilman David Benavides, who represents a portion of the Townsend Street neighborhood in the proposed injunction’s safety zone, said he is acutely aware of the violence that’s plagued Santa Ana’s Townsend Street neighborhood, having lived there for almost two decades.
In the 1990s, violence – primarily gang and drug activity - was an everyday occurrence, he said. But in recent years, crime on Townsend Street, like the rest of Santa Ana has tapered off.
But, Benavides points out, the gang presence, along with the violence, has not disappeared. He noted a recent flare-up of gang related incidents this spring, including a shoot-out that occurred in front of his house that resulted in the death of a 17-year-old girl. Earlier this year, a bullet was shot through Benavides’ living room window at night while his family was sleeping, but nobody in his home was injured.
“I’m frankly personally torn on the gang injunction,” Benavides said. “It’s not something that came to the council for consideration or approval. It’s something that law enforcement and the district attorney’s office have been working on…”
He said he believes a certain amount of police suppression is needed to address the violence, which can’t be ignored. But, he added, “there has to be a significant amount of investment into creating positive opportunities and alternatives for our kids, as well as intervention."
That’s something the speakers on Tuesday night agreed Townsend Street needed more than ever.
Santa Ana resident and social worker Alfonso Alvarez told the council that he was most concerned that the injunction includes minors, and described it as bad public policy.
“With this current gang injunction, the message that has been sent is that we’ve given up on our children, said Alvarez, pointing out that the money and resources spent seeking the injunction could be spent instead on evidence-based practices to revitalize and support the Townsend neighborhood.
“Our community does not need a gang injunction. What we need are resources to keep people out of poverty and out of gangs,” Alvarez told the council.
The meeting was fraught with tension as residents lashed out at council members, and as activists who sought to position their protest signs in the council’s line of sight sparred verbally with a Santa Ana police officer stationed near the front of the council’s chambers.
At one point during the meeting, a protestor stood in the center aisle between audience members hoisting an anti-gang injunction sign on his chest. The officer rushed over, exchanged words with him, and forced the young man to the back of the room.
When Santa Ana resident and Chicanos Unidos activist Carolyn Torres addressed the council, she called out the officer for telling the young man that he would punch him if he didn’t move. But most of her comments were directed at the council as she urged them to examine why the district attorney’s office and police department are pursuing the gang injunction.
“The Townsend gang injunction does not have to happen just because a few people want to further their career and gain access to a bigger budget,” said Torres, who lives near the proposed safety zone.
“Why is our community, which is lacking any sort of structural resources continually targeted for exploitation in the name of safety and in the name of the law? What kind of justice system supports labeling a young person for life?”
Last fall, Torres began speaking out against the gang injunction at council meetings after community members discovered that the police department was pursuing the creation of the safety zone during a September presentation that the department’s gang unit made to a group of Townsend Street parents and youth advocates from Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color.
At a subsequent November meeting for the city council committee on public safety and neighborhood improvement, Boys and Men of Color coordinator Rafael Solorzano says Santa Ana Police Chief, Carlos Rojas, told those present that the department was not planning a gang injunction for the Townsend neighborhood.
“He clearly got caught in the lie and now that they served [the individuals with the complaint for injunctive relief] we know that he did lie,” said Solorzano in an interview.
Several speakers addressed this issue during Tuesday’s meeting, questioning whether the police department tried to obscure its intentions from the community before the lawsuit was file in court, and asking how the injunction originated and what role the city of Santa Ana played in the process.
“Who is behind the gang injunction,” Torres asked the council. “…Is the chief working for the [District Attorney’s] office or the city of Santa Ana. How is it possible to have a gang injunction without substantial community input?”
The speakers on Tuesday also questioned whether those individuals listed on the injunction’s enforcement list would receive due process, an issue that will likely receive increased judicial scrutiny after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last November that the DA's gang injunction in the city of Orange violated the constitution.
In the Vasquez v. Rackauckas decision, the court barred the district attorney from enforcing the injunction against more than 60 individuals on the grounds that its scope was extraordinarily broad. The court also ruled that the injunction encroached on the plaintiff’s civil liberties and failed to give the defendants named in the injunction the opportunity to contest the allegations of gang membership made by law enforcement.
The DA’s office has sought and obtained 12 gang injunctions throughout the county thus far. Townsend Street, if granted, would be the 13th gang injunction in the county and the second in Santa Ana. In 2006, the court approved a gang injunction against the Santa Nita gang.
Yvette Cabrera is a Voice of OC contributing writer.