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Injunction Has Community Feeling Handcuffed

Separating family ties from implications of gang affiliation can be hard in Jordan Downs.

April 28, 2006|Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writer

Jordan Downs is a close-knit community where parking lots double as playgrounds for swarms of rambunctious kids, grown men call older women "auntie," and neighbors trust one another enough to wander in and out of each other's unlocked homes.

Jordan Downs is also a notorious public housing project in Watts considered by the Los Angeles Police Department to be so dangerous that officers are allowed to conduct "foot beat" patrols from the safety of their cars and the department is installing outdoor surveillance cameras to monitor crime.

The project is the home turf of the Grape Street Crips, one of the area's oldest black gangs, and has the highest rate of violent crime among the city's public housing projects. In January alone, police tallied 19 gang-related shootings and seven homicides in and around the 700-unit complex.

The LAPD has intensified its war on gangs with stepped-up patrols and tough enforcement of a year-old court injunction that allows the arrest of Grape Street Crips if they congregate in the project or on surrounding streets.

But the campaign is proving a tough sell in some quarters of the complex, where extended families go back for generations, street gang ties are tangled and deep, and relations between residents and police have been marked by a history of conflict.

Targeting gang members may seem like a straightforward strategy. But in Jordan Downs, the line between good kid and gangster can be frustratingly unclear.

Police officers "wouldn't know a gang member from a Boy Scout in that community," civil rights lawyer Connie Rice said. "Anybody who's ever said hello to anybody in a gang is [considered] 'affiliated.' "

Delvon Cromwell, 26, is a Jordan Downs resident who, along with all three of his brothers, is on the injunction's expanding list.

"This is a tight-knit community," Cromwell said. "There's a lot of us who used to gangbang but haven't done anything for years."

Today, he works with community gang prevention programs, trying to "show the younger guys a better way to live," he said. "But you can't even come out and sit on your porch and talk to anybody" without risking arrest.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the area, said her office has been deluged with complaints from residents who say officers' heavy-handed tactics are saddling young men with arrest records and increasing hostility toward the police. At her prodding, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo have pledged to review the injunction process.

"It's different than [applying an injunction to] a park or other public place," Hahn said. "This is your home. It's difficult not to associate with or be seen with somebody when it's your brother, your neighbor, your family member."

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The original Grape Street injunction applied to 16 gang members, listed by name, and granted police permission to add others who met at least two of the LAPD's nine "gang membership criteria," which include tattoos, nicknames and style of dress.

But in Jordan Downs, countless teenage boys sport tattoos, baggy clothes are a fashion statement, and kids tend to acquire family nicknames long before they reach their teens.

More than 240 names have been added to the court order in the last nine months, and 175 arrests have been made for alleged injunction violations -- misdemeanors that carry a possible $1,000 fine and six-month jail term.

"There is no conspiracy to get everybody you can on this gang injunction," said LAPD Sgt. Timothy Pearce, who heads the gang detail in Jordan Downs.

"The people that are on there are gang members. They may not have a record, but they're with the wrong people ... in the wrong places.... We look at the totality of circumstances."

"Totality of circumstances," however, can convey different meanings to those inside and outside of Jordan Downs, a bleak collection of aging barracks-style apartments where school failure and joblessness leave hundreds of young men aimless and idle.

Three tattooed guys in baggy pants, hanging out in the parking lot, might be gang members acting as drug lookouts or buddies talking about the Laker game. A former gangbanger launching a youth basketball league might be lauded as a role model by parents but considered a gang recruiter by police.

Some residents concede the project seems quieter since the injunction went into effect. But others say tension still exists. "When people see the police, they get to calling everybody, saying, 'Get in the house!' " said Nefateri Thomas, 22. "You see them running, you'd think they committed a crime. But they haven't done nothing. They're just running from the injunction."

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