Richmond Police want to use injunctions as a means of curbing criminal gangs. The police department has asked the city attorney to examine the use of an injunction to “keep chronic law-breakers out of areas where they currently use the public streets and sidewalks to commit crimes and terrorize neighborhoods,” according to the city’s crime reduction plan.
Gang injunctions are restraining orders that prohibit certain people from associating with each other in particular geographic areas. These legal tools have been used for more than a decade in California. They are in place in several Bay Area cities, including San Francisco and San Jose. In addition to limiting where people can go, gang injunctions prohibit some activities, forbidding gang signs and clothes in gang colors, and imposing nighttime curfews.
Opponents say that gang injunctions limit constitutional rights such as freedom of association. Police departments identify gang members, who are served with injunctions by the court at the request of the city attorney, often without a hearing. Police enforce injunctions by arresting those found in violation of the court order.
The California Supreme Court has upheld gang injunctions, but the ACLU successfully challenged an injunction issued by the City of Fairfield in September. The court required the city to warn suspected gang members that they were going to be served with an injunction, and allow for the order to be challenged in a hearing.
“Increasingly, [gang injunctions] have broadened from what was a very focused field…to enjoin practically anyone the city wants to,” said Andre Segura, one of the ACLU lawyers, based in San Francisco, who challenged the Fairfield gang injunction.
The Richmond police acknowledged that gang injunctions are a controversial way to reduce crime, but said they are also an effective way of controlling gang members who are otherwise legally untouchable.
“I do know that people were hard on other cities that used injunctions because they felt like…there was a lot of profiling and things that weren’t really substantiated and validated,” said Lt. Mark Gagan, a police spokesperson.
Richmond will use this awareness to avoid such pitfalls, Gagan said.
“We…are going to [make] sure that everybody that we target for a restraining order…would be someone that we could prove would be involved in criminal activity,” Gagan said.
These measures will allow officers to arrest people who have caused chronic problems in troubled Richmond neighborhoods, Gagan said.
Known criminals are often not prosecuted because residents are reluctant to talk to police or testify in criminal trials, Gagan said.
“Some of the people who are committing crime in our city…are established and sort of notorious in their neighborhoods… fear is one of the reasons that people will not testify against them or stand up to them,” Gagan said.
City Attorney Trisha Aljoe said that her office is looking into the possibility of a gang injunction at the request of the police department, but declined to discuss the specifics of an injunction.
“We will use every tool possible [to control crime], and we are looking at gang injunctions as one of those tools,” Aljoe said.
“This is stuff that is done very quietly or it doesn’t get done,” Aljoe said. She said discussion of an injunction is “premature.”
Yet, Aljoe added, “If it can be done, we will do it.”
Aljoe is a former Salinas city attorney who participated in that city’s gang injunction in the late 1990s.
The Salinas injunction did help residents feel safer, according to Brian Contreras, who has worked in gang prevention in Salinas for 20 years. He is the executive director of Second Chance, a Salinas not-for-profit group that offers counseling and other services to help young people leave gang life.
Contreras also noted significant drawbacks to the gang injunction. “Some people were swept up in the injunction who hadn’t been involved in the gang in years,” Contreras said.
Aljoe said that strict requirements are spelled out in California law for identifying gangs and gang members.
Gangs are not loose associations of individuals who commit crimes, but organizations that have a clear hierarchy and use this structure to make money, Aljoe said.
The city attorney’s office is still determining if Richmond has gangs that meet the requirements for an injunction, Aljoe said.
To identify individuals as gang members, at least three identifying factors must be documented, Aljoe said. Police use evidence such as tattoos, admission of gang membership and association with known gang members to identify subjects of the injunction.
“We have the ability to use a person’s behavior, associations and past criminal history combined…to paint the picture of why we would want to have somebody not allowed to be in a geographic area or in a public park, for instance,” Gagan said.
Such standards for identifying a gang member allow “too much discretion,” according to the ACLU’s Segura. “The discretion that it places in police officers is one of our concerns,” he added.
Since injunctions can be issued without a hearing for accused gang members to challenge the allegations against them, constitutional rights of due process are violated along with those of freedom of association, according to Segura.
Violation of equal protection under the law is also a concern for the ACLU, Segura said, since injunctions are “used against gangs that are composed predominantly of people of color.”
Researchers have not been able to demonstrate that gang injunctions and other restrictions on association have the long-term affect of reducing crime. Limited positive effects were noted in a short-term study of San Bernardino by criminology professor Cheryl Maxson in 2005. Yet no data exists on the long-term effects of gang injunctions on crime reduction. “No such study of community benefits has been conducted,” Maxson said in an email.
One of Richmond’s crime fighting methods is keeping suspected gang members out of certain neighborhoods by prosecuting petty crime, according to Aljoe.
“We are prosecuting these guys for municipal code violations,” Aljoe said, such as urinating in public and gambling in public housing projects. The terms of probation, which last as long as three years, can then limit movement and association with stay-away orders.
Exploring gang injunctions is part of Richmond’s eight-point violence reduction plan. The plan includes increasing traffic stops, better use of data to solve and prevent crimes and improving relationships with community residents.