The city of Santa Ana’s gang injunction in the Townsend Street neighborhood will not necessarily reduce serious crime in the long run and further erodes trust of police in the troubled community, according to a study released this week by a Bay Area-based advocacy group for low-income and minority communities.
The group, Human Impact Partners, surveyed more than 550 Santa Ana residents, examined existing evidence-based research on gang injunctions, and interviewed city and police officials, community organizations and residents.
Among the report’s findings:
- There is insufficient existing evidence to show that a gang injunction will reduce violent crime, gang activity or gang membership or that it will improve community-police relationships.
- An injunction could make some community members feel safer, but members of marginalized groups feel more threatened by an increased police presence in the neighborhood.
- An injunction could divert financial resources from community programs that address economic and social problems that are the root causes of crime and a detriment to public health.
“The Townsend Street gang injunction and other suppression-based policing practices should be weighed against alternate strategies and approaches that are more likely to reduce crime and that pose fewer risks to public health and well-being,” the report concluded.
Among the report's recommendations were that law enforcement agencies work with the community to create a code of professional conduct for officers, create a community-based oversight committee to track police performance and service, and provide resources and services for officers such as mental health support to address exposure to hazardous, stressful and violent situations.
The Townsend Street gang injunction, which was approved by an Orange County Superior Court judge earlier this year in a default judgment, is being legally challenged and is likely to go to trial in civil court next year. It is the second Santa Ana injunction to be approved by the courts, and some residents have expressed concerns that more injunctions are to come.
A gang injunction is a civil order that restricts illegal and otherwise legal, everyday activities of the gang’s members in what prosecutors describe as a “safety zone.” Those enjoined are prohibited, for example, from associating with gang members in public spaces within that safety zone, or from acting as lookouts, or intimidating anyone in public.
The Townsend Street safety zone as defined by the injunction covers a .39 square mile area in a densely populated, largely Latino neighborhood bordered by McFadden Avenue, and Raitt, Sullivan and First streets.
Police officials and the Orange County District Attorney’s office have defended the injunction as an effective tool in reducing gang related crime, and allege in court documents that residents live in fear of the Townsend Street gang.
In a press release earlier this year, the DA's office said the injunction was in response to "decades of violent crimes committed by this gang and numerous residents pleading with law enforcement to eliminate the gang presence so that they no longer have to live in fear."
The study by Human Impact Partners was funded by The California Endowment, and local Latino advocacy groups such as Latino Health Access and Chicanos Unidos helped carry out the assessment.
Santa Ana City Councilman David Benavides, who lives in the safety zone near Townsend Street and represents a portion of neighborhoods impacted by the gang injunction, participated in the health assessment study.
He took the middle road when asked about the gang injunction, saying he doesn't consider injunctions an "end all solution," but that "we do have to battle the gangs."
"Gangs are a problem in the city, they are a problem on Townsend Street and the area,” said Benavides. “My hope is that we prevent kids from joining gangs, and minimize its [the gang’s] power, and not focus on battling the police department or the District Attorney…At the end of day we have to give kids support and alternatives so they don’t end up anywhere near or named on a gang injunction.”
Gabriela Hernandez, a member of Chicanos Unidos and a mental health therapist who works with youth in the Townsend Street neighborhood, praised the report’s conclusion that there is insufficient evidence showing that a gang injunction will reduce violent crime or gang activity.
“The lack of evidence supporting the gang injunction was a huge one for us because we were out there in the community listening and we had already done the research on other injunctions,” said Hernandez.
Just over half of the survey's respondents (54 percent) said they have a "somewhat negative" or "very negative" opinion of Santa Ana police officers. By comparison, 9 percent described their opinion as “very positive,” and 38 percent as “somewhat positive.”
Some Santa Ana residents surveyed also participated in interviews and opposed the Townsend injunction based on their experiences with the nearby Santa Nita injunction. They cited “heavy-handed enforcement, increases in disproportionate policing enforcement along racial lines (with Mexicans/Latinos primarily targeted), and the disruption of youth culture in public spaces” within the Santa Nita safety zone.
Others expressed a lack of trust in law enforcement and a perception that there is a general lack of public accountability, responsiveness and transparency within the police department.
“They’re seen as abusive to liberty and well-being instead of being supporters. That connection needs to be there,” said one community resident cited in the study. “Before community can trust them they need to be part of the community again.”
Two educators interviewed as part of the survey praised the local police officers, including school district police. One of those educators, a former principal of the nearby Monte Vista Elementary, described officers as very respectful to parents and students.
“They were always there right away when we needed them. They kind of knew the neighborhood so they didn’t put down the culture,” said Paulina Jacobs, the former principal.
The report analyzed seven empirical studies on the impact of gang injunctions on crime and safety that were conducted by academics, organizations and government agencies between 1997 and 2011.
The study found that research on the effects of gang injunctions is limited, with findings ranging from minor, short-term decreases in crime to no crime decrease, to increases in violent crime within a safety zone.
“When these studies are taken together and assessed based on their relative rigor and reliability, there is little conclusive evidence on the effectiveness of gang injunctions, and some studies raise serious questions about whether gang injunctions might have unintended consequences, such as increases in violent crime or spillover of violent crime into adjacent areas,” the report noted.
“Furthermore, the available studies indicate that gang injunctions have a greater effect on reducing less serious crime, such as property crime, than major violent crimes.”
Yvette Cabrera is a long-time Orange County journalist and Voice of OC contributing writer. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.