Santa Ana residents, upset and frustrated with what they described as police mistreatment and abuse of authority in the Townsend Street neighborhood and beyond, lashed out at Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas Tuesday night at a community forum to discuss a recently approved preliminary injunction against the Townsend Street gang.
The forum, attended by more than 100 people, was civil, but fraught with tension as residents described incidents where police mistreated suspects, tailed witnesses, and threatened to report arrestees to immigration authorities.
Among those who spoke out was city resident Miriam Grajales, who told Rojas that she witnessed an incident of police brutality and was subsequently followed and tailed by police officers.
“I’ve been harassed by the police and I’ve been treated as a criminal, and I was just a witness,” Grajales told Rojas.
Rojas remained polite throughout the discussion, offering to meet with parents one-on-one, handing out his business card, and distributing a list of resources the community could tap to address their concerns about the lack of alternatives for youth. He also defended the use of the injunction as a means to address the violence.
“If police officers see individuals enjoined by the injunction acting like criminals or gang members they can take action,” said Rojas. “It’s just one very small tool in the prevention and intervention of gangs.”
Joining Rojas at the forum was Deputy District Attorney Tracy Miller and the two sought to clarify the parameters of the preliminary injunction.
Earlier this month, Orange County Superior Court Judge Franz E. Miller approved a preliminary injunction, which will enjoin only 10 of the 24 people who were served with the complaint. In October, Miller will schedule a trial date for the permanent injunction. The remaining individuals are challenging their inclusion in the complaint.
The injunction is essentially a restraining order that would restrict the activities of the gang’s members in a .39-square-mile safety zone bordered by McFadden Avenue, and Raitt, Sullivan and First streets.
Those enjoined would be prohibited, for example, from associating with gang members in public spaces within the safety zone, with the exception of certain spaces such as schools or churches. The order also prohibits gang members from acting as lookouts, trespassing, fighting, blocking free passage or intimidating anyone in public.
Organizers said Tuesday’s forum was the first time the police chief has openly addressed the injunction, a disappointment for residents who for months have sought answers as to why the Orange County District Attorney’s is seeking the injunction against the gang to begin with.
Included was a presentation by Gabriela Hernandez and Alfonso Alvarez, members of the grassroots social justice organization, Chicanos Unidos of Orange County, who helped organize the forum with the help of Townsend residents and other activists.
While residents don’t deny there is crime in the neighborhood, they have challenged the need for an injunction, which would sharply curtail the everyday activities and movement of gang members who are enjoined by the order. Residents have called for more resources for gang prevention and intervention, and asked the city to address the root causes of gang involvement.
Hernandez said that crime statewide has dropped in the last 12 years, and noted that in the Townsend Street neighborhood, when crime skyrocketed in the ‘90s and prevention services were offered to parents and youth, crime fell as well.
“It provides evidence that if we direct resources to these communities crime can drop,” said Hernandez. “The crime here in Santa Ana - we’re not saying that there aren’t problems. We understand that there are, but we know that this [gang injunction] isn’t the appropriate solution for our community, because it will affect the community more than help it.”
Hernandez said that in cities such as Anahiem, San Juan Capistrano and Orange, when individuals violated the gang injunction order, police showed up with immigration authorities to arrest individuals.
“If this is a civil order, if this involves gang members, why is it necessary to have [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE] there. Why are immigration authorities there,” Hernandez told the audience.
At one point the discussion turned to an incident that happened this week outside the Townsend Street neighborhood. Olivia Arzate, wept as she asked Rojas why ICE agents had detained her son, Edgar Vargas Arzate, Monday on his way to his preliminary hearing to defend himself against various charges, including resisting arrest and attempted burglary in a June incident.
“I told ICE my son has a very important hearing today and they said we already know, and they took him,” Arzate told Rojas during a question and answer portion of the forum.
Vargas Arzate's arrest made national headlines as video captured Santa Ana police officers beating him with a baton and punching him repeatedly after he had already followed orders to get on the ground.
Rojas told Arzate that his department doesn’t work with or for federal immigration authorities, although the department has a contract that allows ICE to house its detainees in the Santa Ana City Jail.
The department also automatically shares inmate data with immigration authorities via the Secure Communities program database, which cross checks fingerprints to identify and remove undocumented immigrants convicted of certain crimes.
“I don’t know what happened in that case,” said Rojas, but added that he has launched an investigation to determine what occurred and whether his officers were involved.
Rojas told the audience on Tuesday that he’s served as a Santa Ana police officer for 25 years and noted that violence that occurred on Townsend Street in the ‘90s is similar to what is occurring today. He assured the audience that the injunction would not affect residents, only those listed on the order
Miller, the deputy DA, reminded the audience of the impact the Townsend Street gang has had in the neighborhood, emphasizing with detail how youth have been caught in the crossfire of violence this year, including a 17-year-old girl shot in a car and a 14-year-old boy stabbed on the street.
“We are all human beings and we can have differences of opinions, but I think we should start off with what we can agree on,” said Miller. “And we can all, I think, as human beings agree that kids dying in Santa Ana, in this great city, is bad for all of us.”
She clarified that nobody else will be enjoined by the injunction unless the DA's office returns to court and receives approval from the Superior Court to add an individual to the order. Prosecutors must prove by clear and convincing evidence that an individual is an active gang participant.
Last week, Miller said that law enforcement served two of the 10 people enjoined by the preliminary injunction and relayed that the individuals said: “Thank you, this will help me get out [of the gang].”
She also clarified that individuals can petition either the DA's office or the judge directly in order to be removed from the complaint or a gang injunction order. She also said that she’s personally been involved with serving the orders in all 13 of the county’s gang injunctions, and her office has never sent ICE officers to serve the orders.
“We’re not here to change anybody’s mind about an injunction but we have to be factual, and at least have the facts or the true facts…,” said Miller.
Audience members took Miller to task regarding the process by which the DA’s office has targeted individuals for gang injunctions.
Chicanos Unidos member Albert Castillo cited last year’s U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Vasquez v. Rackauckas case, which upheld a $3.3 million judgment against the DA’s office for violating the due process rights of individuals to contest prosecutor’s allegations of gang membership.
Castillo says that many of the young men alleged to be gang members in that case were students or youth in trouble, not gang members or criminals. He also questioned whether the injunction was the right way to address the violence resulting in the deaths of youth in the neighborhood.
“You’re saying that these poor little girls, these poor little boys [are being killed] in Townsend; this happens all over Santa Ana. Are you going to put gang injunctions all over Santa Ana,” Castillo asked Miller.
During her presentation, Hernandez described how as a teenager she got in trouble with the law, but grew up in a community where her mother was able to tap into resources and services that helped her get back on track.
Today, she’s a mental health therapist, a mother, a Girl Scout leader, and helps with afterschool sports. She told the audience that her concern is that today, Santa Ana youth as young as 7, are being identified as gang members by police and aren’t receiving the type of services that they need to keep them out of trouble.
“When we invest in the community we will have better opportunities in the future,” said Hernandez.
Yvette Cabrera is a long-time Orange County journalist and Voice of OC contributing writer.