April 15, 2010 -- A notoriously violent gang that has been blamed for terrorizing a section of Oakland, Calif., has found allies in the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which have challenged a proposal to make it a crime for the North Side Oakland Gang members to associate with each other and carry a gun or a spray can on their old gang turf.
Oakland City Attorney John Russo said the civil gang injunction, which he proposed Feb. 18, would target the street gang, which has "terrorized our community, intimidated witnesses and recruited children to their criminal enterprise."
Under the proposed injunction, a 100-block "safety zone" would be created and the 19 suspected gang members identified by police would be prohibited from associating with one another, loitering and possessing guns in the designated area.
In addition, Russo's office also proposed that the injunction would include a curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
"The injunction is a tool to protect people who live in this community from a small group of hard-core gang members," Russo said in a statement. "The 19 individuals named in the injunction have convictions among them for strong arm robbery, battery, armed robbery, auto theft, multiple felony drunk driving, multiple drug sales, carjacking, grand theft, possession of an assault weapon, carrying a concealed weapon, reckless flight from a police officer in a vehicle, vandalism and domestic battery. Four are facing murder charges."
Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, who is familiar with gang injunctions from his days as a police officer in Long Beach, Calif., said the practice is an effective way to fight gang violence.
It's not a cure-all, he admitted, but rather a "tool in the fight to give the streets back to the good people of Oakland."
Oakland police hope the injunction will limit gang members' ability to assemble on the streets and commit criminal acts, as well as help officials monitor gang activity. "This will limit the gang's ability to do what they do best: plan and execute crime," Batts said.
But civil libertarians and others are skeptical. The ACLU of Northern California said the injunction opens the door to racial profiling and would give police officers too much discretion to stop and arrest people. In addition, the ACLU said the injunction includes no opt-out provision for people who are misidentified or who have turned their lives around.
"All of us are concerned about violent crime, but the issue here is that such injunctions are an ineffective response that can actually harm the communities they are intended to protect," ACLU managing attorney Jory Steele said. "This ill-conceived measure casts an overly broad net and has the potential to place probation-like restrictions on community members without convicting them of any crime."
Russo has said the proposal respects individual liberties. "Police cannot arbitrarily throw anyone into the injunction," his office said. "Anyone named will have full-due process rights in court and the burden of proof is on the city, as it should be, to prove that they deserve to be restricted from continuing gang-related behavior."
Some Community Members in Opposition
Victor M. Rios, a former Oakland gang member, said he believes that gang injunctions are a failed attempt at addressing community violence.
"When these gang members are ready to change their life for the better and they look around, there are no resources to help them change," said Rios, now a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"Gang injunctions really target and effect entire communities and a lot of young people who haven't committed any serious crimes. Then we have this snowball effect of generations of young people being affected by these injunctions.
"Through these injunctions, these kids feel as if they have already been branded as a gang member, so they in turn join a gang."
Dozens of North Oakland community members have also fought the proposed injunction. More than 30 local residents have come together through community meetings to develop a plan to voice their disapproval of the injunction.
"Regardless of whether there are gang members here, this is about racism and violating civil rights," one attendee told a local newspaper. "It's about wedging communities against each other."
Gang injunctions have proven to be an ineffective tool for protecting public safety, according to the ACLU and Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
"There are already tools that law enforcement can use to keep our neighborhoods safe without placing whole communities under suspicion," committee staff attorney Kendra Fox-Davis said.
In addition, the ACLU said the "Oakland City attorney has not established that the injunction will bring more good than harm to the community."
Russo said any harm would be reserved for the gang members.
"There is definitely potential harm to the gang's ability to operate in the neighborhood," he said. "It may in fact harm their ability to make a living from drug sales, robberies and other crimes.
"It could make it harder for them to recruit children into the drug trade. Most people in the neighborhood would see that as potentially very good."
A court hearing on the preliminary injunction is scheduled for April 22.