Guilt by association
San Francisco has begun to employ a controversial crime-fighting tool known as civil gang injunctions. Injunctions bar persons identified as gang members by law enforcement from engaging in restricted activities in specified areas. In light of the violence that the city is experiencing, proponents argue that these restrictions on civil liberties are reasonable. But one critical question has yet to be answered: Will the injunctions reduce gangs and gang violence in San Francisco?
According to a recent report issued by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, injunctions do not work. The authors of the 108-page report compared gang suppression efforts in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and found that heavy-handed law enforcement tactics, including civil gang injunctions, are not only ineffective in stopping gangs or gang violence, but make the problem worse. The report concludes that there is "no evidence that gang enforcement strategies achieved meaningful reductions in violence" and that gang injunctions merely displace criminal activity into neighboring areas.
Los Angeles has 33 gang injunctions in place and, according to the report, is a glaring example of a failed war on gangs. Over the past 20 years, Los Angeles has used gang injunctions, special gang task forces, gang databases and increased prison sentences to combat gangs and gang violence. The result: Los Angeles has six times as many gangs as it did 20 years ago and twice the number of gang members. With nearly 720 active gangs and 40,000 active gang members, Los Angeles is the gang capital of the world.
In contrast, New York City relies on community policing and gang intervention programs that provide jobs, counseling and prevention activities. Gang crime and violence there has dropped dramatically. Instead of trying to eliminate gangs, New York's approach focuses on reducing gang violence. Before calling New York "soft" on crime, consider the following statistic: in 2005, the Los Angeles Police Department reported 11,402 gang-related crimes; the New York Police Department reported 520.
The report found that gang injunctions make the process of leaving a gang more difficult because injunctions target former gang members after their gang membership has ended. To test this, I met with a dozen people who have been named in San Francisco's gang injunction. I learned that some have been crime-free for years, working at full-time jobs and volunteering in anti-gang programs. One person who police claimed was covered with gang tattoos had his tattoos removed three years ago and was no longer involved in a gang. Several people named in the injunction are brothers, including two who work together at a small business. Ironically, these two brothers would be barred from working together, being outside past 10 p.m., and could face jail time for associating with each other in public or wearing the color red.
Because there is no right to a lawyer in civil court, an individual named as a gang member who cannot afford a lawyer has little choice except to submit to the injunction. The gang injunction is permanent, meaning that the person will carry the label of "gang member" for life. There is no procedure for removing one's name from the injunction and no mechanism to hold police accountable for errors. Because these records are public, the alleged "gang member" may lose his job, as did two people named in the Bayview-Hunters Point injunction.
If gang injunctions are not the solution, then what is? The report again cites New York in finding "ample proof that science-based social service interventions can curb" gang violence. The report found that an infusion of youth centers, after school programs and sports activities operate to offset the familial-like security that gangs provide, and that employment, job training and living wages are needed to lure youth away from the temptations of illegal street enterprise. Ultimately, programs that provide alternatives to gang life with measurable outcomes are needed to address the roots of gangs and violence.
Our city is at a crossroads in deciding how to reduce violence in our neighborhoods. While gang injunctions may temporarily placate public concerns about gangs and violence, there is no empirical evidence to demonstrate their success. Designing effective prevention and intervention programs take time, resources and planning. However, unless we pay attention to what has and hasn't worked, San Francisco will follow the failed footsteps of Los Angeles instead of winning the war on gangs.
The Justice Policy Report, "Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies," is available at www.sfpublicdefender.org