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Opinions Divided on Efficiency of Sanctions

March 25, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Seeking a court order aimed at breaking up a local gang, Oxnard joins a long list of California cities that have tried the same tack.

Law enforcement officials and others who have studied the use of gang injunctions, however, are divided over their effectiveness. Some point to a measurable drop in gang violence; others say the injunctions are little more than saber-rattling from prosecutors and police eager to placate a worried public.

UCLA economist Jeff Grogger studied 14 gang injunctions imposed in Los Angeles County neighborhoods in the late 1990s. His conclusion: "Typically, they have some effect. Violent crime fell 5% to 10% in the year after the injunctions were imposed."

Whether the figures stayed down is unknown.

But Grogger did look at a claim frequently made by critics of gang injunctions. They contend that decreases in crime in one neighborhood are offset by increases in nearby neighborhoods as gang members try to ease away from heightened scrutiny.

Not so, Grogger says. His statistics indicated no crime hikes in the neighborhoods adjacent to those where police were cracking down on gangs, he said.

While Grogger concluded the injunctions were worth the expense of imposing them, he acknowledged they also can lead to serious questions about civil rights.

"Do they give cops license to hassle anyone who happens to look like a gangbanger?" he asked, adding that the temptation would be to target young minority males. "It's an important issue."

Whether injunctions can be effectively enforced in a day of strained police budgets is also a question.

In Los Angeles, police statistics indicate that gang crimes in a number of neighborhoods increased after injunctions were granted.

"We always used to say that all they do is move crime six blocks away to the next community," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the Southern California ACLU. "But now what we're finding is that they don't even alleviate crime in the areas where they're imposed."

In the San Fernando Valley, for instance, injunctions were slapped against the Blythe Street gang, allegedly involved in 414 crimes between 1996 and 2000, she said. After the injunction was granted, the total climbed to 550.

"When a community has been affected by gangs, the district attorney wants to make people think things are being done," Ripston said. "But injunctions just don't work."

On top of that, the injunctions unfairly keep people from freely associating with each other, she said. Often, gang members who are targeted have been convicted of nothing, but still must live with restrictions on who they can see, what they can wear, and when they have to be off the street.

Long Beach, San Diego, San Jose, Salinas, Pasadena and other cities have tried gang injunctions with varying success.

In Long Beach, Police Sgt. Paul LeBaron said that the strategy has been helpful -- to a point. "It gives police officers a tool they can use when they have nothing else," he said.

Even so, it can also suggest to crime-weary residents a potential that police simply can't deliver.

"Many people have this false expectation of what a gang injunction is," LeBaron said. "A gang injunction is not going to make the gang go away. It sounds cliche, but it's another tool we use."

Times staff writer Amanda Covarrubias contributed to this report.

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