Are San Francisco's gang injunctions working?

Four years ago, San Francisco faced a stubbornly high crime rate. To fight back, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and the police department turned to a controversial crime strategy – the gang injunction. It’s a public nuisance lawsuit filed in civil court that restricts the movements and actions of individuals accused of membership in a street gang. Violators are charged with a misdemeanor and face fines or up to six months in jail.

San Francisco's first injunction was implemented in the Bayview in 2006, against 25 alleged members of the “Oakdale Mob” street gang.

Over the next three years, further injunctions were obtained against groups in the Western Addition,the Mission District and most recently, Visitacion Valley. The City Attorney and SFPD claim the injunctions have contributed to reductions in crime, but some residents say they result in police harassment of black and latino youth and pave the way for gentrification.

KALW's Ali Winston reports.

*     *     *

YVONNE MERE: There are cousins, there are families, there are brothers.

CROWD MEMBER: So it says they are barred, period.

ALI WINSTON: When San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced, last August that he was seeking an injunction against 41 alleged gang members in Visitacion Valley, the news rankled many locals, including District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen.

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, quote, 'clean up the streets,' some folks I've heard go so far as to say, 'ethnic cleansing.'

Despite their controversial nature, there are now more than 60 gang injunctions in California. Their legal particulars have long raised questions of civil liberties. A police department compiles evidence about an individual’s gang affiliations, then the city attorney uses that to file a lawsuit in civil court.

Once approved, a gang injunction places restrictions on someone's movements and associations by setting curfews and preventing them from being around certain people. Because injunctions are a civil procedure, defendants do not have a right to a court-appointed attorney, and may not know how to fight the charge. In San Francisco’s Mission District, for example, where an injunction was filed in 2007...

LIZBETT CALLEROS: ...Some of the people that were named on the injunction weren't active, they're residents.

Lizbett Calleros is a coordinator at the Central American Resource Center, or CARACEN. CARACEN has done work mediating gang disputes in the Mission and organized some of the opposition to an injunction against the Norteño gang in 2007.

CALLEROS: And so they are pretty much outlawed from...because it says they terrorize residents and people that live and work in the injunction zones and while these people are also residents of the injunction zones, but you have a different type of people that live there than did 10 years ago, and so there's a conflict of interest, I guess, that is often associated with injunctions.

There is a definite racial tinge to the procedure: all but one of the sixty-plus gang injunctions in the state target black, Latino or Asian groups.

In San Francisco, the court orders exist in the Bayview-Hunter's Point, Western Addition, Mission District and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods – all historically black or Latino areas undergoing significant demographic changes.

Joe Collins is a Western Addition resident who San Francisco Police classified as an “Uptown” gang member. He says gang activity is not limited to the city's black and brown areas.

JOE COLLINS: Sunset District Incorporated, they're a bunch of Irish white gangs. They just the sons of the WPODs -- White Punks on Dope. They was in the 70s and the 80s, I know y'all familiar with them dudes. And they just like the sons of those dudes. So they always been the 46th Avenue Sunset District gang, they been around for years. Then you got the ABs, the Asian Boyz, the FOBs, the Fresh Off the Boats, you gots the Joe Boys, the Wah Chings, you got all these dudes that's running Chinatown and all that. But see, they're not hitting gang injunctions on them dudes, you know what I mean? And them is real organized – they doing it on a high level, you know, big scale.

In the neighborhoods where San Francisco's injunctions arein effect, some residents claim the city attorney’s court orders are breaking up families and communities.

DANIEL LANDRY: The impact of the gang injunction in the Western Addition has been horrific. Number one, most of the young people that the police and the city attorney's office declared as gang members was not gang members at all.

Daniel Landry is a community activist whose family has been in Central San Francisco for over 50 years. He is also one of the founding members of King's Originals, the original name for Knock Out Posse, which is one of the three enjoined Western Addition sets. Although the 42-year-old Landry has been out of the street life for years, he has stayed in contact with the new generation of K.O.P.

LANDRY: A lot of these young men that they identify or targeted as gang members have children. Now that they fathers, they can't come back to their neighborhoods and have been banned from they neighborhoods, you have broken up families, where you might have a father stay in Vallejo, but child stays in San Francisco. How did that help our community?

According to SFPD Lieutenant Jim Miller, this is how:

MILLER: The ones on the injunction, they move out. Then once they move out, someone's going to fill their shoes. Sometimes, sometimes they're not. In the Western Addition, they were been pretty good about, not a lot of youngsters stepping up and filling their shoes, so to speak.

Lieutenant Miller is in charge of the SFPD's Gang Task Force, a unit of 28 investigators who focus on gang activity in the city. He can point to numbers to support injunctions: the city’s murder rate has dropped from 100 victims in 2007 to 50 in 2010. Furthermore, when City Attorney Herrera announced the Visitacion Valley injunction last summer, he also released figures indicating that the people named on the city's previous three injunctions were being arrested for fewer and fewer non-injunction crimes.

Miller says implementing injunctions is an effective tool in reducing crime now, as well as down the line.

MILLER: You get these main hardcore gang “instructors”, if you want to call it that, away from the younger kids coming up, so there's really not someone there with this real hardcore background to show them how to be a real gangster, so to speak.

Still, Miller says it’s not completely effective. There is a new generation, the result of recruiting in local middle and high schools. Despite fewer homicides in San Francisco overall, murders and shootings remain level in the Bayview District. And despite a gang injunction, Norteño activity has not dropped in the Mission, where the number of homicides actually rose last year.

More than 140 people are named on San Francisco's gang injunctions. Fourteen are currently in federal prisons, indicating that they are being jailed for non-injunction violations. The removal of so many of San Francisco's hardcore gang members from the street may be one reason why fewer people on the City Attorney’s lists are being arrested.

And the injunctions are not helping to keep many supposed gang members out of trouble. Kerry Dawson, who was named on the Oakdale injunction, was killed in July, four blocks from the safety zone. Jelvon Helton was shot to death in the Marina the night the Giants won the World Series. Helton was an alleged member of the Western Addition's Knock Out Posse. Co-founder Daniel Landry says that in reality, injunctions only clear neighborhoods for a short time.

LANDRY: What we said all along is, if you tell someone that they can't stand on Eddy and Steiner, then all they have to do is walk across the street and stand on Ellis and Steiner. You haven't changed the dynamics, you actually haven't addressed the so-called problem. What you're doing is moving people and shifting people to different areas.

In Oakland, concerns over the legitimacy of gang injunctions have prompted city-wide resistance against such court orders in North Oakland and Fruitvale.

No such organized efforts have taken place in San Francisco, and with the new District Attorney and former Police Chief George Gascon in support, injunctions will likely continue to be put into effect where gang activity takes place in the city.

For Crosscurrents, I'm Ali Winston.

You can find more of Ali's stories and stay up to date with Bay Area criminal justice news at The Informant. This story originally aired on January 20, 2011.