Heated Debate Over Gang Injunction

Blank Check, Slippery Slope, or Another Tool in Toolbox?

<b>TOUGH SALE:</b> What City Attorney Steve Wiley was selling regarding the merits of the proposed gang injunction, none of the people packing the City Council chambers were buying.
Paul Wellman

More than two years after City Hall took its first legal step to enact a gang injunction, the Santa Barbara City Council held its first public hearing to discuss the matter, drawing a spirited, boisterous, combative, and often offended crowd that far exceeded the holding capacity of the council chambers. Not one member of the public spoke in favor of the proposed injunction ​— ​which, as written, would significantly limit the rights of 30 alleged adult gang members from associating in public with other gang members.

Many of those who spoke argued Santa Barbara would be far better served if City Hall did more to address the core reasons why young people join gangs​ — ​poverty, educational inequities, lack of opportunity — rather than expend limited resources on expanding police powers for further gang suppression and locking up young Latinos. They included a Harvard-educated UCSB professor; young Latino males claiming they’re already profiled and stopped by police with no probable cause; Brown Beret activists coming from Santa Paula; a retired Episcopalian minister; the wife of one of the 30 defendants named in the proposed gang injunction, reading a letter written by her husband explaining how he’s changed; another gang-injunction defendant himself; scores of activists with Latino-rights organizations like CAUSE and PODER; young men associated with Mi Palabra, a gang-intervention program; longtime community agitators with the ACLU; newly arrived student activists attending City College; an intervention specialist from Oxnard; and the proverbial many, many more.

Others expressed anger the council waited two years before consulting with the public on so charged an issue. Daraka Larimore-Hall, chair of the Democratic Central Committee, noted with outraged sarcasm that the council spent far more time in public deliberations over the fate of BevMo! when it was first proposed yet effectively excluded any public input prior to embracing the proposed injunction behind closed doors. “The reason to listen to the people before the train has left the station,” he stated, “is to make sure it’s heading in the right direction.”

Such rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding, Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez remained convinced that the proposed injunction remained “a useful tool in the toolbox” of gang suppression. In the past 24 hours, the chief stated, Santa Barbara had been rocked by two incidents of gang violence. On Monday, a 19-year-old gang member was stabbed twice ​— ​though not fatally ​— ​in the back on East Gutierrez Street. The following day, Sanchez added, there was what he described as a likely gang-related shooting by the Taco Bell on Milpas Street. Although no one was injured from the gunfire, Sanchez objected, “There are innocent people walking down the street.” (Police spokesperson Sergeant Riley Harwood confirmed that the stabbing victim was a known gang member, but he said no arrests had been made in connection with the shooting incident.) Sanchez also noted that in the past 21 years, 16 people have been killed in Santa Barbara because of gang violence. Four of those victims, he added, were not gang members. The gang injunction would help keep the community safer, he argued, by limiting the access of veteran gang members to potential new recruits.

Tuesday’s hearing on the gang injunction was informational only. No vote took place. Of all the councilmembers, only Grant House expressed any change of mind. Just earlier that day, House had expressed strong support for the injunction, arguing Latino parents needed help keeping “bullies” and gang members away from their kids. But by the evening’s end, House ​— ​whose term expires this year ​— ​expressed concern that the injunction might do more harm than good, sowing alienation and suspicion among the community upon which the police department must rely to be effective. He asked whether it was still legally possible to pull the plug on the proposal if a majority of the council wished to do so. The answer, he was told, is yes. But the votes were clearly not there to change course. The only other councilmember against the injunction is Cathy Murillo. Mayor Helene Schneider and the rest of the councilmembers either affirmed their support or silently endured the barrage of critical commentary. If the anti-injunction contingent failed to change the council’s collective mind, they successfully elicited repeated pledges from City Attorney Steve Wiley not to expand the scope of the proposal beyond what’s now on the table.

Paul Wellman

For years, Chief Sanchez had opposed any suggestion that Santa Barbara needed a gang injunction. He changed his mind a few years ago, after a spate of gang-related killings, beginning with the stabbing death of a 15-year-old at the hands of a 14-year-old in front of Saks Fifth Avenue in 2007. Three high-profile deaths of non–gang members came in quick succession afterward, prompting Sanchez and City Attorney Steve Wiley to reconsider.

(Where Sanchez spoke movingly about having attended the funerals of teens slain in gang violence — and the freshness of gang violence — numbers provided by the county Probation Department tell another story. In the past five years, juvenile crime and gang-related incarceration have dropped to a 10-year low throughout the county. The number of juveniles on the South Coast serving out gang-related terms and conditions as part of their probation has dropped by fully one-third. The number of juveniles who either pleaded guilty to or were found guilty of felony charges dropped to the lowest level since 2005 in 2011, and the same holds true for violent offenses. In fact, the overall number of cases referred to County Probation has dropped by 44 percent in the past five years.)

Wiley and Sanchez set out to initiate a new legal action that would name specific gang members ​— ​“30 gang thugs,” Wiley repeatedly called them ​— ​and would bar them from associating with other gang members in public “Safety Zones” like schools and parks. Enjoined gang members would not be allowed to drive together in the same car ​— ​especially on excursions into rival territory. They would also be prohibited from going to Fourth of July festivities along the waterfront or El Mercado during Fiesta. Violators of the injunction could be found guilty of contempt of court and face civil penalties of $500 fines or five days behind bars.

When Wiley filed his first legal documents, he also included legal language that would allow him to add up to 300 “John Does” at a later date. This, more than any single detail, generated concern that the injunction could creep, spread, and expand far beyond the 30 “worst of the worst” initially named. For community activists concerned about ethnic profiling, this was the smoking gun that City Hall would be targeting Latino males sporting short hair and wearing baggy pants and plaid shirts. One speaker said the John Doe proviso was a “blank check” and not just “another tool in the toolbox.” As such, he said, it constituted a “bait-and-switch.”

Wiley stressed repeatedly the inclusion of John Does was an inconsequential legal formality common to all civil filings and that he had absolutely no intention of amending the list of the individuals named. As a matter of practice, he said, the Does would be eliminated from the filing once the injunction trial starts. He also stressed that he could not ​— ​as a matter of law ​— ​include anyone under the age of 18 in the current complaint. Of the 30 named, he elaborated, 28 had extensive felony records. About 15 were either in state prison or county jail. All were adults. (Attorney Tara Holland-Ford, who represents one of the “worst of the worst,” disputed that Wiley was legally precluded from filing against juveniles and said that he had told her at a meeting shortly after the injunction was filed that he intended to do that. Likewise, she took exception to Wiley’s contention that any of the 30 could “opt out” of the action simply by renouncing any gang affiliation. Ford stated that the injunction language Wiley proposed would not allow the opt-out clause until three years after the injunction took place.)

Wiley also disputed many of the claims made by critics that the injunction would allow law enforcement to take action if two or more of the enjoined gang members happened to be riding a bus together, attending class together, or taking their children to school at the same time. Wiley said such concerns were unwarranted and that he would never seek such broad authority because “it would be stupid” to ask. Judge Colleen Sterne, he said, would never grant it anyway. She would ask, he said, “What are you doing? Why are you wasting my time?”

For the time being, however, the proposed injunction remains suspended in legal limbo, where it’s been hung up for the past 18 months. To make the case that the 30 named defendants are actually gang members, Wiley sought to use police records dating back to when they were juveniles. Juvenile records are highly confidential, and the extent to which Wiley ​— ​who is working in conjunction with Hilary Dozer of the District Attorney’s Office ​— ​can have access to those records has become the focus of a prolonged secondary legal battle. It’s up to Judge Thomas Adams, who handles juvenile cases, to determine how much access, if any at all, Wiley and Dozer can have to those records. A ruling by Adams on that dispute should be coming soon. After that, it will be up to Judge Sterne to determine whether the injunction is justified, whether there’s sufficient evidence to enjoin the 30 parties named, and exactly what behaviors the injunction should and should not limit.

Nearly 50 people spoke Tuesday night. Some were eloquent, some mumbled. All were against it. None of the parents who asked the chief and other councilmembers for help keeping their kids out of gangs showed up. Councilmember Bendy White ​— ​who, along with Mayor Schneider, asked that the hearing take place ​— ​stood by Chief Sanchez but said he was struck by the “real hit of anger and frustration” in the room and the need to deal with it “in a constructive way.” Councilmember Murillo insisted that prevention and intervention were called for, not polarization. Councilmember House said he worried that the injunction would promote “targeting, stereotyping, and labeling” and undermine the considerable good will Chief Sanchez has compiled over the years through community outreach.

The mayor expressed hope that the meeting helped clear up many of the misconceptions about the proposed injunction and suggested that both sides wanted the same thing. Schneider noted that City Hall had been steadfast in its financial support to nonprofits ​— ​$700,000 per year ​— ​during the recession, many of which deal with at-risk teens. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department, she said, spends $2 million per year on programs serving underserved kids, and if young Latino males are being harassed by police because of their clothes, she said, that’s an issue that needs to be addressed regardless of the injunction.


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