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Westminster Gang Gets the Word--in Writing : Law enforcement: Members enjoined from hanging out together. It may not be constitutional, but it's working. : SPECIAL REPORT: FACING DOWN GANGS. How One City Fights Back

July 11, 1993|ERIC LICHTBLAU and DAVID AVILA and ERIC YOUNG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

If individual gang members are committing crimes, Silverstein said, authorities should charge them and try them. By imposing the weight of law against these young men en masse, he said, officials are doing an "end run" around constitutional and criminal law.

But city officials say the gang situation has gotten so bad that they need to take extraordinary measures to try to head off crime before it can occur--even if such extreme measures face constitutional challenges.

"We have the rights of the citizens in the community to be concerned about, not the rights of gangs, and we'll fight it on that basis," said Westminster Mayor Charles V. Smith.

The city said in its July 1 lawsuit that traditional law enforcement techniques in the West Treces' neighborhood "have failed to date to permanently abate the nuisance, and in fact the level and frequency of violent criminal acts against both citizens and police appear to be increasing."

City officials allege that from December, 1991, through this May, members of the Trece gang (\o7 trece\f7 means \o7 13\f7 in Spanish) have been involved in 39 area crimes, including murder, drive-by shootings, assaults, drug dealing and auto theft. More crimes might be reported, officials said, if residents did not live in "total fear" of local gang members.

Indeed, residents tell of a neighborhood where frequent threats and intimidation, gunshots, graffiti, vandalized cars and back-alley drug deals have become daily reminders of life in a gang zone.

"I'm afraid to let my kids play out front because it's scary to think that sometimes things can turn deadly," said Tina Burk, 25, who has three young children and lives on 21st Street in Westminster.

"Of the areas I've delivered, it's a crummy area, a troubled area," said Carl Boliou, a veteran U.S. Postal Service mail carrier who has to keep special guard against mail thefts by gang members. "I can always count on some excitement out here every day. You just kind of keep watch."

Some have decided it's not worth the fight anymore.

"We're getting out of here in two weeks," said Lisa Roberts, 28. "I have two small children. I don't want them to be in the way of stray bullets."

Authorities in Westminster say West Trece gang members have effectively seized control of their neighborhood, gathering at parks and apartment buildings and tagging walls with gang graffiti--often "W13" or "WT"--to mark the parameters of their territory.

The court injunction is meant to combat the problem.

Westminster has been plagued by gangs apart from West Trece, including growing bands of Asian groups that are responsible for violent home-invasion robberies, authorities say. Last week's shooting of a 13-year-old girl at the Westminster Mall is thought to be connected to gangs.

But Al Valdez, a district attorney's investigator who is assigned to Westminster's anti-gang unit, said that Latino gangs such as the West Trece are more territorial than their Asian counterparts, making them prime targets for the court ban on congregating.

"You've got to start somewhere, and this seemed to be one of the most active gangs in the area," Valdez said. "We're just preventing them from getting into trouble."

This will be the first time the unusual law-enforcement tool has been tried in Orange County, but it has already been deployed in neighborhoods in several California cities in recent years, including Los Angeles, Pomona, Burbank, San Fernando and San Jose.

In a key early test of the strategy, the city of Los Angeles lost a 1987 attempt to rein in a Westside street gang in the Cadillac-Corning area, with a Superior Court judge declaring that the proposal was "far, far overreaching" in its infringement of constitutional rights.

City attorneys in Los Angeles had sought unsuccessfully to impose a broad range of aggressive prohibitions, banning any reputed gang member from standing alone in public streets for more than five minutes in the Cadillac-Corning area or from having visitors in their homes for less than 10 minutes. (This was seen as a way of discouraging quick drug deals.) Juveniles named in the proposal, meanwhile, would have faced a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

When that proposal was rejected, municipal leaders in search of anti-gang weapons began scaling back the scope of their requests for civil injunctions. Instead of the broad injunction sought in 1987, city attorneys began attacking a narrower goal: banning known gang members from congregating together within their neighborhood.

The limited tack has still drawn opposition from civil libertarians who question the constitutionality of such a ban, but it has passed legal muster so far in those communities that have tried it. And city officials give rave reviews.

In Burbank--the model for the Westminster injunction--city officials report that gang-related problems on a targeted block of Elmwood Avenue have dropped from at least 10 incidents per month as of last fall to virtually none today.

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