Civil actions for civil streets 

Almost a year of silence was broken last weekend when retaliatory gang violence erupted in the Mission district, killing three and injuring two.

To the dismay of some law enforcement officials, the gang shootings occurred within a “safety zone” created to limit gang activity, which officials say has been a successful tool in suppressing killings and shootings in neighborhoods held hostage by various gang factions.

Three years ago, The City initiated the first civil gang injunction, which attempts to stop crime and violence associated with gangs by hitting presumed gang members with a civil lawsuit for being a collective public nuisance. Pursued by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, an injunction allows The City to pursue a civil judgment, as well as a criminal verdict, against those who violate the injunction.

Gang injunctions are designed to restrict gang activity within a designated area or neighborhood, dubbed “safety zones.” Prohibited activity can range from witness or victim intimidation, weapons possession and drug sales, to associating in public with known gang members.

The City has civil injunctions against a total of five criminal street gangs in areas of Bayview-Hunters Point and parts of the Mission district and Western Addition.

Three years after San Francisco’s first gang injunction went into effect, police are arresting fewer gang members within The City’s safety zones. Statistics from the City Attorney’s Office also suggest that crime has not migrated to other parts of The City because of the injunctions, something critics warned would happen.

Most of the crimes that identified gang members are being arrested for are low-level offenses such as drug possession, traffic violations, warrant arrests and violations of the injunctions themselves.

Herrera says statistics show that the injunctions are doing exactly what they were intended to do and they can be measured in a concrete way.

Suppression is the key word with gang injunctions. It is one of many tools that have been aggressively applied to quell violent crime in The City. Police have also credited an increased presence in The City’s most violent neighborhoods — broken down into five zones throughout San Francisco — for a significant drop in crime in the first half of 2009.

To date, The City has tallied just 37 homicides, compared with 97 in 2008 and 98 in 2007.  Furthermore, police and FBI statistics cite an overall drop in violent crime.

The first gang injunction was applied in Bayview-Hunters Point in October 2006. Despite overall homicide numbers dipping substantially in 2009, there have still been at least 11 homicides in that district to date, more than anywhere else in The City.

Attorney Damone Hale, who represented one man targeted in the Oakdale Mob injunction, said that the Bayview-Hunters Point injunction hasn’t stopped crime.

“People are still afraid over in Oakdale,” Hale said. “When guys get to a certain age, they fade. You have to look at how the younger ones fill the void.”

In the Mission district, violent crime skyrocketed in 2008 because of gang violence — despite Herrera’s injunction against the Norteños, a long-established street gang that had been warring with several other Latino gangs.

There were six homicides in the Mission district injunction zone in 2007 and eight in 2008. In 2009, however, there were no gang-related homicides until last weekend, when three people died in two separate incidents Friday and Sunday. At close to 10 months without any homicides, the turnaround in the Mission had been on track to be one of the most successful gang-suppression stories in The City.

The victim killed in last Friday’s shooting, 21-year-old alleged Norteño gang member Michael “Monster” Sanchez, was arrested three times in 2008 for violating the gang injunction. He left prison in early September after serving time for grand theft, dealing drugs and violating the injunction.

He was violating the injunction once again Friday when he was gunned down by what police say is a rival Norteño faction.

Now the police presence in the neighborhood has been stepped up as authorities try to make sure the violence doesn’t
escalate.

“There’s no one element that adds to the success — it’s a combination of things that has helped,” Mission Station Captain Stephen Tacchini said. “I like to call it focused deployment. Ten percent of the geography experiences a majority of the crime.”

And then there are other means of support. In the Mission district, a number of nonprofit agencies strive to provide jobs and alternatives to violent lives, according to Andre Segura, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. Segura fought the injunctions in The City and is currently fighting an ambitious injunction in Fairfield.

“I know that in the Mission, the injunction has been lauded as something that has changed it,” Segura said. “But the Mission has a large community base and support group. Can you say that the injunction is the reason that violence is down? That’s a jump that’s hard to make.”

Injunctions against three gangs in the Western Addition are more difficult to evaluate. Arrests are also down among named members, but crime had been on the downturn in the area before the injunctions went into effect.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi remains probably the most vocal opponent of gang injunctions.

“Have the gangs increased or decreased in size since the gang injunctions?” Adachi said. “Are the gangs still recruiting younger gang members to join, or are other gangs filling the void? What about other gangs that are operating in the area? Has the gang injunction deterred their activities? These are critical questions that must be examined if a complete evaluation of the success of gang injunctions is desired.”

So will the City Attorney’s Office be instituting another gang injunction in the future?

“I think that gang injunctions are not a panacea — it’s a tool,” Herrera said. “It’s my hope that they won’t have to be used. It’s a last resort. I maintain the option when circumstances demand it.”

New police chief familiar with use of judicial remedy

Gang injunctions sprouted in the mean streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s, when an estimated 59,000 gang members called the city home. In 1987, that city obtained an injunction against the West Los Angeles-based Playboy Gangster Crips.

That was the year George Gascón returned to the LAPD after a six-year hiatus pursuing a career in business management. Gascón, now San Francisco’s chief of police, learned a lot about fighting gang violence in the subsequent years and knows how to apply tools such as an injunction.

There are currently 37 active injunctions in Los Angeles involving 57 gangs, according to the LAPD. The Los Angeles injunction map is a patchwork quilt of colorful names such as Trouble Gangsters and Bounty Hunters.

San Francisco has injunctions against five gangs, and Gascón said there is a lot less gang violence in The City than in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, he plans to consistently apply injunctions as a tool.

“Gang injunctions are like other tools in policing if they’re well structured,” Gascón said. “In L.A., we had some that worked well and others that didn’t work very well.”

Gascón, a regular jogger and health nut, compares the application of an injunction to staying healthy. Doctors advise patients to exercise to avoid heart disease. If the patient waits until a heart attack to start exercising, then it could be too late to make a difference.

“The premise is that it’s a preventive measure. ... You need to immediately recognize the violation and you need to send a message that it will be enforced,” Gascón said. “You have to be consistent. You can’t just wait until violence inflames before using the injunction.”

Gascón said that if statistics are showing fewer arrests among gang members on the injunction list, it could be because they are obeying the law.

“Hopefully, that’s the case, because in a way you’re saving their life,” Gascón said. “I’ve had instances where gang members are [under an injunction] and it gives them a reason to get out of the gang.” — Brent Begin

Taking on The City’s gangs

The City Attorney’s Office tracks how many people on the injunction list are arrested. The following numbers are totals that span from October to October each year, except for 2009, which covers the period up to August.

Gang: Oakdale Mob

Neighborhood: Bayview-Hunters Point

Names on injunction list as of Oct. 30, 2006: 22

Arrests citywide of gang members named in injunction
2007    23
2008    12
2009    10

Arrests within safety zone of gang members named in injunction

2007    4
2008    7
2009    2

Total gang members on list arrested in San Francisco

2007    13
2008    6
2009    7

Gang: Norteño

Neighborhood: Mission district

Names on injunction list as of Oct. 12, 2007: 30

Arrests citywide of gang members named in injunction

2008    23
2009    11

Arrests within safety zone of gang members named in injunction

2008    15
2009    5

Total gang members on list arrested in San Francisco

2008    12
2009    9

Gang: Eddy Rock

Neighborhood: Western Addition

Names on injunction list as of
Oct. 18, 2007: 19

Arrests citywide of gang members named in injunction
2008    13
2009    5

Arrests within safety zone of gang members named in injunction
2008    10
2009    2

Total gang members on list arrested in San Francisco
2008    8
2009    3

Gang: Chopper City

Neighborhood: Western Addition

Names on injunction list as of Oct. 18, 2007: 11

Arrests citywide of gang members named in injunction
2008    10
2009    7

Arrests within safety zone of gang members named in injunction
2008    2
2009    3

Total gang members on list arrested in San Francisco
2008    5
2009    5

Gang: Knock Out Posse

Neighborhood: Western Addition

Names on injunction list as of Oct. 18, 2007: 12 

Arrests citywide of gang members named in injunction
2008    3
2009    2

Arrests within safety zone of gang members named in  injunction
2008    2
2009    2

Total gang members on list arrested in San Francisco
2008    2
2009    2

Source: Office of the City Attorney

By the numbers

Neighborhoods with injunctions

3

Gangs on injunctions

5

Gang members currently on all three injunctions

97

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

About The Author

Brent Begin

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