For several years, community groups, local police departments, and the OCDA have struggled over “civil gang injunctions.”
A gang injunction is a lawsuit filed by a district attorney against a group of named people it alleges are gang members. The OCDA has been very active in filing injunctions in recent years.
In one of the latest examples, the DA hopes to enforce an injunction in the Townsend neighborhood of Santa Ana. That injunction continues to be fought in court.
In the media, the DA and local police regularly claim that injunctions have been proven to reduce crime, but that is not true. No study has conclusively shown that gang injunctions have played a role in the general, nationwide decline in the crime rate since the 1990s.
Gang injunctions prohibit the people they target from engaging in a variety of otherwise legal activities. The theory is to limit mobility of gang members and break up gang identity in order to prevent crime. But there is often little or no evidence that people placed under injunctions are actually gang members.
Generally, there is no trial, and the DA wants it that way.
In the Townsend case in Santa Ana, the DA has resisted a trial for months—delaying and dragging-out court proceedings partly by refusing to provide defense attorneys with the evidence against their clients.
That these injunctions are being sought almost exclusively in Latino, African-American, and immigrant neighborhoods makes this a race and civil rights issue.
Gang injunctions abridge people’s rights and liberties in important ways: not only your right to a trial but your freedoms of speech, assembly, expression, and your freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures all can be abridged by a gang injunction. Individuals have even been barred from hanging out with family members in public places.
And social scientists know very little about the effectiveness of these extraordinary and heavy handed tactics in combatting crime. Officals’ claims that gang injunctions are proven to be effective in lowering crime rates are based on innadequate studies that analyze calls for service and crime reports. This is an unreliable way to measure the effect of gang injunctions because people may report, or not report, a crime based on a wide variety of motivations, including fear of the police.
Because of weak methodology, studies of gang injunctions’ affects have had inconsistent findings.
Two examples will have to suffice to suggest the problem in the studies.
In 2011 The Journal for Criminal Justice Research published a study that analyzed calls to police in 25 gang injunctions in LA, one year before and one year after the implementation of injunctions.
On average, violent crime calls decreased 11.6%, less serious crime calls decreased 15.9%, and total calls decreased 14.1%.
Based on these findings, researchers concluded that gang injunctions “greatly improve the quality of life in communities.”
However, a 2006 report from the RAND Corporation analyzing the Santa Nita gang injunction in Santa Ana contradicts this view.
Specifically, RAND researchers observed that reports of violent crime increased 20-40% and reports of property crime decreased by 20%.
These are serious inconsistencies.
We should not allow our law enforcement officials to cherry-pick the studies they want to believe in order to justify heavy-handed policing. Worse, studies examining gang injunctions and reported crime sometimes fail to consider other factors that might have affected their conclusions. Were social programs simultaneously initiated to reduce gang activity and crime levels? Social programs are widely understood in academic literature to assist in helping youth avoid the desperation and alienation that contribute to crime and gang affiliation.
Despite little understanding of the effects of injunctions, policy makers continue to act as if gang injunctions are good tools for crime reduction.
There has been a significant increase in gang injunctions since 2006 in California, according to our research using public records act requests.
DAs statewide have become more interested in this draconian policy even though violent crime and property crime in California have been in decline from peaks in the 1990s. We should oppose such law enforcement over-reach into civil liberties. Gang injunctions’ methods are not unlike warrantless surveillance of citizens in the name of national security or drone strikes on poorly identified “enemy combatants” abroad. In all three of these cases, law enforcement branches of government arrogate to themselves an almost unchecked authority to decide guilt without a trial.
Unproven as a crime strategy, gang injunctions nonetheless very effectively curtail basic constitutional rights of the targeted individuals.
And courts have sometimes noticed.
In 2012, the California Superior Court in Santa Ana struck-down the enforcement provisions of an injunction in Orange because it would undermine the right of the accused to due process.
Yet, our OCDA continues to pursue injunctions aggressively in Townsend, Placentia, and elsewhere in the county.
This continuing growth of injunction proceedings is a symptom of a growing race, class, and civil rights crisis.
Many legal scholars believe the policy will ultimately fail serious constitutional examination–making injunctions not just a shameful episode in our history but also a waste of public money that would be better appropriated for youth programs in our neighborhoods.
Many people and groups, including Chican@s Unidos, are advocating renewed commitment to youth programs to replace injunctions.
Tell your police departments, the OCDA, and elected officials at all levels that we want programs that produce hope in our communities.
We do not need expanded, arbitrary police power.
James Spady is an Associate Professor of History at Soka University and Alex Scott is a freelance writer and researcher. Both are members of Chican@s Unidos.