MOST DEFINITELY: Sometimes, even I am amazed at how right I can be. A few weeks ago, I suggested S.B.’s City Council declare partial victory in the war on gang violence and walk away from the scorched-earth court battle required for City Hall’s proposed gang injunction to be implemented. It turns out I didn’t know the half of it.
Three years ago, when Police Chief Cam Sanchez first proposed the injunction, he argued it would provide cops an additional crime-fighting tool to target the 30 “worst of the worst” gang-bangers in S.B., carefully selected after hours of painstaking — and very expensive — crime-record analysis. When the injunction finally goes to court on May 5, it turns out only seven of those 30 will still be of concern. The vast majority have since been put behind bars, thanks to traditional shoe-leather police work. A few have been deported. One was murdered in Mexico two months ago. And just last week, City Hall very quietly agreed to drop five of the alleged “worst of the worst” from the suit altogether. According to new City Attorney Ariel Calonne, “It was in the interest of justice.” It turns out that guys with monikers like “Lil Nightmare,” “Smurf,” and “Dopes,” had cleaned up their acts sufficiently — school, jobs, families, kids, no arrests — that their inclusion would undermine City Hall’s case in the eyes of Judge Colleen Sterne. Of the remaining seven, two are mothers.
Next week, the S.B. City Council will hold a hearing on the gang injunction thanks to councilmembers Gregg Hart and Cathy Murillo. Amazingly, it will be only the second time the public can weigh in on what’s become a highly charged matter. Even more astonishing, it will be the first time the councilmembers openly vote. They did so three years ago, but in “closed door” deliberations reserved for litigation and personnel matters with zero public input. A whole lot has changed since then.
When the injunction was first proposed, the public was clamoring for something that looked like decisive action. Three non-gang members had been killed by gang members in very public spaces. Shortly before that, a 4th of July mêlée left one teen gang member dead and his brother, who allegedly helped instigate the fracas, behind bars for his murder. And who can forget the 15-year-old stabbed to death by a 14-year-old by Saks Fifth Avenue? As proposed, the injunction would prohibit the “worst of the worst” from associating with each other or any known gang members near public schools, public parks, or in any of the two gang safety zones, which encompassed pretty much the entire East- and Westsides, the injunction would create.
Latino-rights activists and civil libertarians — though now engaged and enraged — were strikingly slow to respond. Initially, the most damning criticism came from law enforcement officials themselves, who privately muttered — off the record — they already had all the authority they needed. Most gang members, they noted, had probation conditions prohibiting them from associating with known gang members. They didn’t need new laws, they scoffed, to roll up on gang members; they needed more enforcement of existing ones.
For a host of reasons, gang activity on the South Coast has diminished greatly since then. In 2011, S.B. police reported 169 Type 1 (serious crime) gang incidents. Last year, the number had dropped to 52. In the first three months of 2014, there have been nine. In the first three months of 2011, there were 84. That’s a 90 percent drop. According to stats released by county probation, the number of juveniles on probation because of gang-related activity has plummeted dramatically, as well. In April 2010, there were 353; this April, the number was down to 181. In that same time period, violent juvenile crime dropped by 59 percent. Little wonder Los Prietos Boys Camp just shut down half of its operation.
The punch line is that traditional law enforcement methods work. Thanks to computers and cell phones, it now takes cops, school officials, and probation officers 20 minutes to swap info on at-risk individuals, where in the past it would have taken two weeks. Likewise, the school district finally figured out that expelling and suspending problem students only served to fuel the gang fire. Better to keep them in the classroom than on the street. By adopting a new restorative approach, such disciplinary actions have been greatly reduced, and even challenging students are kept engaged. Early intervention programs, initially funded 20 years ago by tobacco-settlement funds, may likewise be bearing fruit. And Chief Sanchez deserves serious props for opening a pseudo police substation at the Franklin Neighborhood Center right across from the Pennywise Market, reportedly ground zero for Eastside gangs. If he did the same thing at the Westside Boys & Girls Club by Bohnett Park, that would go a very long way to calming longstanding neighborhood fears about both the park and the club. I don’t know what it will cost to litigate the injunction, but it’s more than enough to create another pseudo substation by Bohnett Park.
The political winds are changing, too. Santa Barbara’s Juvenile Justice/Delinquency Prevention Commission — whose members were appointed by Presiding Judge Arthur Garcia — just voted to oppose the gang injunction. With gang activity dropping, its members felt the injunction was not warranted. County Supervisor Salud Carbajal — who according to one wag “has the best nose in local politics” — has now come out against the injunction after initially supporting it. He argued limited funds would be spent on intervention and prevention programs rather than endless litigation.
And whether effective or not, gang injunctions are ethnically polarizing. They just are. And that interferes with effective community policing. So why risk it? For councilmembers sitting on the fence, I’d advise dusting off your copy of The Art of War by Sun Tzu. “Lose the battle, win the war,” he wrote 2,500 years ago. That makes him more amazing than even me.