The long-awaited gang injunction trial, initiated more than three years ago by the City of Santa Barbara, got off to an appropriately jarring start Monday when a backpack containing two knives and an airsoft pellet gun belonging to a 26-year-old male said to have gang affiliations was discovered outside the courtroom of Judge Colleen Sterne. The owner was arrested without incident, and the following morning attorneys representing both sides managed to deliver their opening arguments — briskly and dramatically — in about one hour.
After that, the proceeding shifted into a lengthy if at times laborious debate over what meaning to ascribe to the blizzard of blue and red dots — each representing a wide range of offenses committed respectively by alleged Eastside and Westside gang members — distributed over an enlarged street map of downtown Santa Barbara by city police crime analysts. To listen to Assistant City Attorney Tom Shapiro, all those dots — which resembled the splatter made by shotgun pellets — explain why an injunction is urgently needed. Santa Barbara has, and has long had, two rival criminal street gangs, Shapiro said, and their members “have terrorized the city and its neighborhoods.” He explained, “We are seeking a court order to put an end to street terrorism.”
Traditional law enforcement methods, he claimed, have not succeeded. Extraordinary measures were required so city residents could enjoy “the security and tranquility” to which they’re entitled. If approved, the proposed injunction would bar 11 alleged gang members — when first unveiled, Police Chief Cam Sanchez named 30 individuals, terming them the “worst of the worst” — from associating with other gang members in most parks, near certain schools, or in any of the three permanent and one temporary safety zones proposed by the injunction. Those violating the injunction face civil sanctions of six months in jail.
Despite a dramatic drop in crime rates — gang violence peaked in Santa Barbara in 2007 — Shapiro insisted there’s been a recent uptick in violent behavior that justifies the injunction. In the past three years, he said, local gangs have been responsible for one murder and five attempted killings. To make his case in the weeks ahead, Shapiro will present a gang expert who will testify how successful similar ventures have been in Lompoc, Oxnard, and Los Angeles. His star witness, however, promises to be an unnamed gang member now in County Jail “with firsthand knowledge” of how local gangs function as tax collectors from drug dealers on behalf of the Mexican Mafia.
Leading the charge against the city’s effort, criminal defense attorney Tara Haaland-Ford argued the injunction — which law enforcement has described as “another tool in the toolbox” — should be used only as “a last resort” and that such extreme measures are not warranted by the facts. Traditional law enforcement methods are working, she insisted, and gang crime is way down from previous years. In 2012, she pointed out, gang activity accounted for only 1.5 percent of all the Level I crime reported within city boundaries. Santa Barbara’s gang crime, she said was 9.4 to 11.7 percent lower than cities of comparable size.
Haaland-Ford dismissed the city’s expert witness as an injunction advocate rather than a scholar. Her expert, she stated, will testify the injunction — under the best-case scenario — would hardly reduce reported crimes at all. By contrast, she said, she’ll present witnesses to testify how they don’t live in fear despite living in a so-called gang “war zone.” Of the 11 people still named, Haaland-Ford said less than seven were at large, and the rest would remain behind bars for many years to come. By denying the injunction, she argued, Judge Sterne could signify “the judicial system is working, the toolbox is full, the tools are in working order, and these extraordinary measures are not necessary.”
The first witness was Sergeant Dave Henderson, who along with two other full-time officers, two part-time officers, and two information technology specialists spent six months investigating whether Santa Barbara needed an injunction. After speaking with 30 current and former gang investigators and poring through reams of police records dating back to 1992, Henderson concluded that Santa Barbara has had 537 “gang members or active participants” over the past 19 years. In that time, the police department has gone through no less than three different information management systems, making data mining difficult.
That difficulty was apparent when Henderson was grilled by Haaland-Ford and other defense attorneys about the massive number of dots on the enlarged city map. Henderson acknowledged under cross-examination that the dots didn’t necessarily reflect that one of the 537 city’s gang members actually did anything wrong, just that something wrong happened at that location. In fact, he said, the alleged gang member could have been the victim or witness. Henderson also acknowledged that the dots representing expired warrants, for example, failed to distinguish between walking-a-dog-without-a-leash offenses to more serious violations.
Likewise, the dots failed to distinguish between offenses that have nothing to do with gang affiliation — such as domestic violence — and those that clearly do. That information, Henderson insisted, could be had, but it would take time and not on Tuesday. When asked how long, he responded it could take as long as six months or as short as a couple of hours. The challenge confronting Judge Sterne is whether she can divine how solid — or squishy — the city’s gang statistics really are. That determination will weigh heavily upon her decision. The trial is expected to last 10-15 days.