The Bay Area's gang injunctions explained

Oakland's latest gang injunction covers part of the Fruitvale district. Image courtesy of the Oakland City Attorney's office

Today, Oakland City Attorney John Russo announced he’ll file a new gang injunction targeting the Norteño Street gang in the Fruitvale neighborhood.

OAKLAND CITY ATTORNEY JOHN RUSSO: The Norteños have been one of the most destructive, vicious and sociopathic gangs in Oakland, not just for years, but literally for generations.

Gang injunctions are increasingly being used to combat crime. Many law enforcement officials support their use, like Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts:

OAKLAND POLICE CHIEF ANTHONY BATTS: The purpose of an injunction is to put on notice the gang members or people in the community who are causing so much harm and to allow good people who live in those neighborhoods to come back and reclaim their civil rights and liberties and go out in public in a safe manner.

The gang injunction is a civil lawsuit introduced in California in the mid-1980s that restricts the activities of alleged gang members in certain neighborhoods. In the past three decades, their use has spread across California, including the Bay Area.

On September 30, a judge approved San Francisco's fourth injunction, targeting two gangs in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood. And tomorrow, an Alameda Superior Court judge will review the implementation of Oakland's first gang injunction, five months after it was approved.

KALW's Ali Winston has been reporting on gang injunctions in Oakland and San Francisco for the past few months. He explains the history of gang injunctions in California and the Bay Area, and how they are being used today.

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HOLLY KERNAN: So Ali, let’s start with Russo’s announcement this morning.

ALI WINSTON: Well, the city attorney of Oakland John Russo announced that he is seeking a gang injunction against 42 individuals who are members of the Norteños street gang in the Fruitvale neighborhood of East Oakland. And according to the city attorney’s office and the police department, these individuals are responsible for a great deal of violence, shootings, robberies in the neighborhood through their own activities and through conflict with two rival gangs, the Border Brothers and the Sureños.

KERNAN: So that’s the big news today. I’d like to back up and get a little context here. How did gang injunctions first come to be used to fight gang activity in California?

WINSTON: Well, they originated in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, when then-City Attorney James Hahn filed suit against the Playboy Gangster Crips in 1987. The initial filing didn’t name any individuals, it just named 300 “Does.”

KERNAN: John Does?

WINSTON: Yes – people yet to be named. These people would not be allowed to congregate in groups, wear certain colors and would be subject to a curfew in a geographic area outlined by the injunction lawsuit.

And over the next several years, Los Angeles courts would go on to approve over 30 injunctions against street gangs throughout the county. They also spread to other cities in other parts of Southern California, San Jose, as well as other states.

KERNAN: So when did gang injunctions reach Oakland and San Francisco?

WINSTON: Well, San Francisco was the first city out of those two to file an injunction in October 2006. City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a gang injunction against the Oakdale Mob, a street gang in the Bayview-Hunter's Point neighborhood of San Francisco. And since then, San Francisco courts have granted three more injunctions – one in the Western Addition, one in the Mission District and one in Visitacion Valley.

KERNAN: What is the reaction in a neighborhood where a gang injunction is imposed? What are residents saying? Are they for this or against it?

WINSTON: Well, it’s a mixed bag. In all these neighborhoods, there are serious concerns about street violence and public safety, and there are residents who are welcoming to any approach that would make them and their families safer. There are also people who aren’t really in favor of the injunctions because there are concerns about restrictions on civil rights. And then there are also concerns about racial profiling because all these injunctions are in majority-minority neighborhoods and do target people of color. In fact, throughout California, there’s only one injunction that does target a white group, which is an injunction in Palos Verdes against a group of surfers called the Dirty Underwear Gang.

This point about racial profiling has come up in political races throughout the Bay Area, especially in the District 10 Board of Supervisors race. I spoke with one of the candidates, Malia Cohen, on the matter and this is her take on the issue:

MALIA COHEN: The gang injunctions are happening in project areas where there's redevelopment going on, where I think there's a systematic effort to possibly “clean up the streets.” Some folks I've heard go so far as to say ethnic cleansing.

KERNAN: So Ali, I take it the injunction hasn't been too popular in places like Visitacion Valley?

WINSTON: No, it hasn't. A number of the District 10 candidates have come out against the injunctions and base a lot of their campaign on it.

But on the part of the authorities, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and the San Francisco Police Department maintain that the injunction is necessary to bring down the crime rates in the area. The authorities have linked 10 homicides over the past three years to the gang feud in the injunction. I heard SFPD Lieutenant Mikail Ali of the Ingleside Station speak at a press conference in August about this matter. He was a lead investigator on an investigation five years ago that sent 12 members of one of these two gangs to federal prison.

LIEUTENANT MIKAIL ALI: There needs to be some level of parameters on behavior. And if we can intervene before this behavior manifests itself and rises to the level and the need for federal prosecution where you're looking at individuals spending 40 years of their lives in federal prison, then perhaps we should do something on the low end.

KERNAN: If they started to be used in about 1993, we have almost two decades of evidence. How are injunctions working in terms of reducing violence?

WINSTON: Well, there's conflicting research on that matter. Some studies have found drops in violent crime after these court orders are approved, while other research found no correlation between the injunctions and changes in the crime rate. In San Francisco, Dennis Herrera's office released statistics claiming fewer and fewer gang members were arrested for non-injunction crimes after they were filed. However, it's not clear whether this is because they're incarcerated or whether other people have taken their place in these gangs.

What is clear, though, is that being listed on an injunction can be very damaging to someone's future prospects. Violating the injunction adds misdemeanor charges to someone’s criminal record. And in every injunction filed in San Francisco, there have been multiple individuals listed as gang members who have no criminal charges.

On this matter, I spoke to a Larry Jones Jr., a Visitacion Valley community activist who works ex-offenders and youth. He is pretty upset by the severity of the injunction.

LARRY CARL JONES JR.: Who's next to be injuncted? Me? My little brother? Someone who probably has some past ties but are doing a whole lot for this community? Say if a cop gets mad at me and throw me on the list and then it's just gonna be a gavel slam and my life is ruined? These young mens lives are ruined.

KERNAN: So, what is next for Oakland?

WINSTON: Well, once the city attorney files the gang injunction against the Norteños, they’ll be given a court date which will be in about a month’s time. There is a court date tomorrow, a status conference on the northside Oakland injunction. We also obtained contracts from the city attorney’s office last week and published them on the Informant about the city attorney’s contract for a third injunction in deep East Oakland. It’s not clear who that will be against but it’s almost certain that it will come down some time this year.

If you're interested in discussing the Oakland gang injunction, you can attend a hearing tomorrow afternoon at the Alameda County Courthouse. The hearing will begin at 2 p.m. in Department 20.

Ali Winston is one of our criminal justice reporters. You can follow his blog at The Informant.