Fed up with deadly drive-by shootings, incessant drug dealing and graffiti, cities nationwide are trying a different tactic to combat gangs: They’re suing them.
Fort Worth and San Francisco are among the latest to file lawsuits against gang members, asking courts for injunctions barring them from hanging out together on street corners, in cars or anywhere else in certain areas.
The injunctions are aimed at disrupting gang activity before it can escalate. They also give police legal reasons to stop and question gang members, who often are found with drugs or weapons, authorities said. In some cases, they don’t allow gang members to even talk to people passing in cars or to carry spray paint.
“It is another tool,” said Kevin Rousseau, a Tarrant County assistant prosecutor in Fort Worth, which recently filed its first civil injunction against a gang. “This is more of a proactive approach.”
A lawsuit too far?
But critics say such lawsuits go too far, limiting otherwise lawful activities and unfairly targeting minority youth.
“If you’re barring people from talking in the streets, it’s difficult to tell if they’re gang members or if they’re people discussing issues,” said Peter Bibring, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “And it’s all the more troubling because it doesn’t seem to be effective.”
Civil injunctions were first filed against gang members in the 1980s in the Los Angeles area, a breeding ground for gangs including some of the country’s most notorious, such as the Crips and 18th Street.
The Los Angeles city attorney’s suit in 1987 against the Playboy Gangster Crips covered the entire city but was scaled back after a judge deemed it too broad.
Chicago tried to target gangs by enacting an anti-loitering ordinance in 1992 but the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 1999, saying it gave police the authority to arrest without cause.
Since then, cities have used injunctions to target specific gangs or gang members, and so far that strategy has withstood court challenges.
Variety of restrictions
Los Angeles now has 33 permanent injunctions involving 50 gangs, and studies have shown they do reduce crime, said Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
The injunctions prohibit gang members from associating with each other, carrying weapons, possessing drugs, committing crimes and displaying gang symbols in a safety zone — neighborhoods where suspected gang members live and are most active. Some injunctions set curfews for members and ban them from possessing alcohol in public areas — even if they’re of legal drinking age.
Those who disobey the order face a misdemeanor charge and up to a year in jail. Prosecutors say the possibility of a jail stay — however short — is a strong deterrent, even for gang members who’ve already served hard time for other crimes.
“Seven months in jail is a big penalty for sitting on the front porch or riding in the car with your gang buddies,” said Kinley Hegglund, senior assistant city attorney for Wichita Falls.
Last summer, Wichita Falls sued 15 members of the Varrio Carnales gang after escalating violence with a rival gang, including about 50 drive-by shootings in less than a year in that North Texas city of 100,000.
‘Scared into compliance’
Since then, crime has dropped about 13 percent in the safety zone and real estate values are climbing, Hegglund said.
Other cities hope for similar results.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued four gangs in June after an “explosion” in gang violence, seven months after filing the city’s first gang-related civil injunction.
Fort Worth sued 10 members of the Northcide Four Trey Gangsta Crips in May after two gang members were killed in escalating violence, said Assistant City Attorney Chris Mosley.
“Our hope is that these defendants will be scared into compliance just by having these injunctions against them,” Mosley said.
However, some former gang members say such legal maneuvers wouldn’t have stopped them.
Usamah Anderson, 30, of Fort Worth, said he began stealing cars and got involved with gangs as a homeless 11-year-old. He was arrested numerous times for theft and spent time in juvenile facilities.
Anderson says if a civil injunction had been in place then, he and his friends would have simply moved outside the safety zone.
“That’s the life you live, so you’re going to find a way to maneuver around it,” said Anderson, a truck driver who abandoned the gang life about seven years ago and has started a church to help young gang members.
The ACLU and other critics of gang injunctions favor community programs. The Rev. Jack Crane, pastor of Truevine Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, is helping Anderson’s group provide gang members with counseling, shoes and other resources needed to help them escape that life.
“We don’t want to lose another generation,” Crane said.
Some residents in the Fort Worth safety zone say they feel better with the injunction in place.
Phoebe Picazo, who recently moved to the city to care for her elderly parents, said she hears gunfire almost every night.
“This has always been a quiet community with a lot of seniors, but now we’re having to keep our doors locked,” Picazo said. “With the injunction, I feel better for my folks.”