Do Gang Injunctions Work?

Signs from a gang injunction protest
Marchers at a gang injunction protest at Oakland’s city hall in late January.

Injunctions are a controversial method of restraining the movement of alleged gang members in certain areas called safety zones by using a civil order, one similar to restraining orders used in domestic violence cases. The police identify alleged gang members targeted by the order and the orders are issued by civil rather than criminal courts.

Though the California Supreme Court upheld gang injunctions in a 1997 case, opponents of injunctions say that the orders violate the constitutional rights of the enjoined. The ACLU of Northern California appeared in court to oppose the first Oakland gang injunction. Injunctions impose significant restrictions on the enjoined, the ACLU-NC said in an amicus brief, and would “profoundly affect their basic liberty, limiting their association with family and friends, their freedom of movement, and their political and cultural activities.” Efforts to enact a second injunction in Oakland have met with vocal opposition from civil rights lawyers and community groups.

Two hours worth of citizen speakers lined up to talk at a late February meeting of the city council’s public safety committee that considered Oakland’s injunctions. The committee declined to take action on the injunctions after the meeting, but their neutral stance stood in sharp contrast to the emotional appeals from city residents for and against the injunction.

Forty men are named on the proposed injunction.

Fruitvale resident Katrina Vigil, whose husband is one of the accused gang members, sobbed as she stood at the podium before the council committee with her mother at her side. She told council members about the effect the proposed injunction has already had on her children, especially their reaction when they see police in their neighborhood. “They not only cry and say, ‘they are going to take my daddy,’” Vigil said, her children also ask her if “only Mexicans do bad things.” The Fruitvale area is home to a large Latino community.

Young people were on the mind of injunction proponents, too. “We can’t improve the lives of our children,” said Fruitvale resident Ralph Cook, “if we can’t provide an umbrella of safety where children live.” His comment met with thunderous applause from the hearing room.

The injunction, if approved, would be Oakland’s second. The city’s first injunction, approved in May 2010, covers North Oakland. The fifteen people named in the North Oakland gang injunction cannot be outside in the safety zone between the hours of 10PM and 5AM and they can’t associate with other people named as gang members on the injunction. The court order also prohibits a number of activities that are already illegal, such as possessing weapons and selling drugs. The men named on the Fruitvale injunction face the same restrictions.

Fruitvale was selected for an injunction because of increasing gang activity in the neighborhood, said Watch Commander Benson Fairow of the Oakland Police Department, who oversees the Fruitvale district. “The Nortenos were the only gang,” Fairow said, “but recently the Border Brothers and the Sorenos appeared.” Interpersonal violence is part of the culture of these gangs, and is unpredictable, he said. “These gang members go into other neighborhoods literally looking for someone to shoot,” Fairow said. “They often shoot at someone who is wearing the wrong color.”

“I know my family doesn’t want me to open my mouth,” said a Fruitvale resident in a voicemail to city councilman Ignacio de la Fuente, who represents the Fruitvale area and supports the injunction. De la Fuente played the recording to the crowd in the hearing room. “I am sick of it,” said the recorded voice of an older-sounding woman. “I want to speak. The Nortenos is not a part of culture. It’s not part of my culture.”

Do Injunctions Reduce Crime?

Most of the people who packed the city hall hearing room held yellow or white signs opposing the injunction, though the number of pink signs that read “yes,” signaling support for the measure, increased slightly as the four-hour evening meeting wore on. The balcony, which held part of the capacity crowd, was a sea of yellow and white dotted by pink, capped off with a banner along the back wall that read: “Oakland Teachers Say No Police Violence.”

The emotional cacophony, though fueled by genuine concerns about crime, safety and civil rights, drowns out extended discussion about effectiveness. Do gang injunctions work? Do they reduce crime in the safety zone and make city streets safer? These questions get lost in the volley between supporters and opponents of the injunction.

Injunctions have had an effect on crime in the safety zone in North Oakland, according to the city attorney’s office, which is what the measure was intended to do. “It’s a tool to prevent specific people from committing specific crimes in specific areas,” said Alex Katz, spokesman for Oakland City Attorney John Russo.

Crime has increased citywide as well as in North Oakland, Katz said. Only one person on the injunction, however, has been arrested in the safety zone (for a probation violation) and two people on the injunction have been arrested outside of the safety zone, Katz said.

It is too early to determine the long-term effectiveness of the North Oakland injunction, according to the City Attorney’s report to the City Council on injunctions. Research about injunctions is limited, the report acknowledges, but a 2005 study by expert Cheryl Maxson does suggest that they can be effective, it adds.

The question of whether or not injunctions work, however, is complicated and remains unresolved, Maxson said in an interview. She’s an associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine and an expert in delinquency and crime with a focus on gangs and youth violence.

“Gang injunctions could be useful if they are used in a specific way,” Maxson said. Intervention programs should provide the people targeted by injunctions with an “off ramp” to the life of crime, she said.

Maxson’s research does suggest that there may be a short-term benefit to gang injunctions in particular situations—when a specific gang is being targeted in a very small geographical region. In these situations, injunctions may have a modest benefit, Maxson said. The small benefits, however, should be weighed against the burden injunctions place on the civil rights of the enjoined and the costs of enacting and enforcing an injunction, Maxson added.

The question of whether or not injunctions are effective in reducing crime is hard to determine using police data, Maxson said. “They would have every reason,” she said, “to want to see it working in their data.”

Maxson’s work looked at whether or not injunctions made people feel safer in their neighborhood. That they did in the short term is important, Maxson said. When people feel safe in their communities they are more likely to engage in activities like sending their kids to the park, or to intervene in disruptions in the community. Quality of life in the neighborhood improves.

No long-term studies, however, have shown that gang-injunctions are effective in reducing crime or making residents feel safer in their neighborhood—even though gang injunctions have been used in California since the early 1980s.

“I think the problem here is that this seems to be an increasingly accepted practice,” Maxson said. There is no demand for a critical assessment of gang injunctions, she said, because stakeholders including the community and the police usually want the measure enacted.

“This is an area,” Maxson said, “that cries out for more research.”

Gang Injunctions and Violence Prevention Efforts

Gang injunctions are a preventative public safety measure, according to Katz, one that will protect the community, but will also help protect people named on the injunction from harm. “It’s going to prevent them from being the target of violence from other gangs,” Katz said. “The point is to keep these guys from getting hurt too.”

Barry Krisberg, a fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice and a nationally recognized expert on crime and delinquency, says there’s no data to support this understanding of gang injunctions. Krisberg was called to testify in support of accused gang members in the civil court hearings about the injunctions, but Judge Robert Freedman disqualified his testimony because Krisberg does not have specific expertise in gang activity in the Fruitvale area.

No credible experts, Krisberg said, support gang injunctions as an effective method of reducing crime.

“I don’t think you are going to go to a credible criminal justice conference and have people advocate for this,” Krisberg said.

Instead, experts are looking to innovative work like Project Ceasefire in Chicago, Krisberg said. Chicago’s Project Ceasefire uses former gang members to do outreach work and stop gang-related violence before it happens. “That’s where the thinking is across the country,” Krisberg said.

Policing efforts are usually less successful, but some crime suppression efforts work better than others, Krisberg said, citing saturation patrols—deploying lots of cops to high crime areas—as a research-backed effective policing practice.

“Gangs are serious,” Krisberg said. “But we have better ways of going at it.”

Mostly, injunctions affect people peripheral to criminal activity—petty criminals, Krisberg said. Serious criminals won’t be deterred by the prospect of spending a few months in jail, the maximum penalty that can be invoked for violating the injunction.

The injunction could have a real impact on men who are trying to turn their lives around, however.

Two men named on the proposed Fruitvale injunction, Michael Muscadine and Kenneth Vigil, said that they’ve already moved on from their criminal pasts. “I was born a child, and I made many mistakes as a child,” Vigil said at the public safety committee meeting, where his wife also spoke. “This is the best I ever done in my life and now I find myself facing another roadblock,” Vigil said.

“If this does happen, where am I supposed to go?” Muscadine asked at the meeting. In an earlier interview, Muscadine said that he worked evenings moving office furniture in a union job that was difficult to find with a criminal record. He finished work, he said, after the curfew hours began.

“Some of these people are criminals,” Krisberg said. “Some aren’t. We are sweeping people up.” That kind of legal dragnet is corrosive to our constitutional rights, he added.

According to the city attorney’s office, Oakland’s injunction differs from earlier injunctions, because it offers alleged gang members an administrative process to petition for their removal from the injunction. The Oakland injunction also names specific people as alleged gang members. Typically, injunctions name John Does rather than specific people, and police decide who is or is not a gang member on a case-by-case basis, Katz said. (The city of San Francisco does name specific people in their Western Addition gang injunction, approved in 2007, and also offers an opt-out process for people named on gang injunctions).

“We won’t decide in some arbitrary way who is a gangster,” Katz said. “They have to be served. They can hire an attorney, find someone to represent them pro-bono, or represent themselves.”

Much of the criticism of injunctions, Katz added, is based in the perception that Oakland is using the John Doe type of restraining order, because that is simply what the term gang injunction calls to mind. “I wish,” he said, “we could call it something other than a gang injunction.”

Civil court Judge Robert Freedman continues to hear arguments in the Fruitvale gang injunction case. As of last week, he said he was considering granting a partial injunction against some of the alleged gang members on the proposed order. A partial decision may be issued as early as March 15.

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