Gang injunctions roil Oakland politics

Photo by Puck Lo (pucklo.com)

The city of Oakland is currently defending a controversial effort to reduce gang violence. Alameda County Judge Robert Freedman is reviewing a proposed gang injunction by City Attorney John Russo that would restrict the movement and associations of 40 alleged Norteño gang members in the Fruitvale District. Russo and Police Chief Anthony Batts claim the injunction will reduce gang-related crime in the area.

But local activists say it's targeting the wrong people, will lead to increased police harassment and only serve to displace crime. KALW's criminal justice correspondent Ali Winston has been reporting from the courtroom. He joined KALW’s executive editor, Ben Trefny, for an update.

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BEN TREFNY: So Ali, we're in the third week of proceedings concerning the Fruitvale injunction. What's the latest?

ALI WINSTON: It’s been dramatic. So far we've heard testimony from just two defendants – Javier Quintero and Abel Manzo. Both have convictions for drug sales and are currently on probation. And the city is trying to convince Judge Freedman that their criminal history ties them to the Norteños, but it's not clear. Neither defendant has been arrested for a violent crime as an adult, and their juvenile records are confidential. In fact, some very serious allegations have come up regarding the city obtaining their juvenile records without their consent.

TREFNY: So Quintero and Manzo have no record of a violent criminal past. But that’s not the case for others on the injunction list.

WINSTON: Absolutely. Ten of the defendants are currently behind bars. And most of the others are on probation or parole, some for violent offenses, some for nonviolent offenses. It’s no surprise that the defense chose Quintero and Manzo as its first witnesses because of the lack of violence on their record. Their attorneys claim these two are only guilty of growing up in a Norteño neighborhood and knowing people with gang ties – both have relatives who are on the injunction.

TREFNY: That's been one of the big criticisms of Oakland's other gang injunction, right? It’s too broad ... just targets people who happen to live in gang territory or committed crimes in the past.

WINSTON: Right, but for their part, the City Attorney's office says the evidence they've offered is enough to prove involvement of these defendants. I spoke with City Attorney Spokesman Alex Katz outside the courtroom last Wednesday. He said all the evidence is on the City Attorney's Website and the court’s Website, and people can make their own determination about their guilt.

ALEX KATZ: The police recommended people to us that they believe, based on years of experience and years of intelligence and years of investigation, are members of the Norteños.

TREFNY: That was Alex Katz, communications director for the Oakland City Attorney. So, Ali, what do the numbers show us concerning crime in Oakland this year?

WINSTON: As of last night, there have been 19 murders in Oakland so far this year. That's up from seven at this point in 2009. Nonfatal shootings are also on the rise.

TREFNY: And it was just last May that the court approved the North Oakland gang injunction. What kind of effect is it having on the neighborhood?

WINSTON: It's not clear, right now. The City Attorney and OPD reported to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee last Tuesday, and they said that drug crime in North Oakland has dropped notably, but reports of other offenses have increased. Also, there have been more shootings in the neighboring areas of West Oakland and South Berkeley. That's worth noting, because one criticism of gang injunctions is that tend to push violence into other communities. They have a displacement effect. Still, at Tuesday's hearing, Oakland Police Lieutenant Freddie Hamilton said the injunction appears to be working in North Oakland.

TREFNY: So that’s the police perspective. Who else spoke at the hearing on the North Oakland gang injunction?

WINSTON: About 200 people showed up – it was, by far, one of the most packed hearings I've ever attended in Oakland. And there was plenty of emotional testimony from both sides. Some residents in favor of the injunctions spoke of their own experiences with crime. At one point, District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente played a voicemail left by a resident who was too afraid to speak out publicly against the Norteños. It was very dramatic.

Now the sound is a bit muddled, but she says, “I don't know how I can keep my name out of this because my family will kill me. But I don't care anymore. I'm an old lady, and I don't care. These people have hurt all kinds of people for many, many years, and these things are still going on. The Norteños are not part of a culture. It's not part of my culture.”

So that was a phone message played at a hearing on the North Oakland and Fruitvale gang injunction last week. And some of the 40 defendants in the proposed Fruitvale injunction also addressed the council. I caught up with one of them, Kenneth Vigil, outside the council chambers. He told me he's a former, non-active gang member on parole. He’s taking classes at Chabot College and working. And he says the city is targeting him for past mistakes.

KENNETH VIGIL: I was a young man and I committed crimes as a juvenile, but now I'm an adult, I'm 28-years-old. I have a wife, a family, I have children and to me this is frivolous ... I haven't had no contact with the Oakland Police Department in about 11 months, I moved out of Oakland to better myself. This is the best I ever done in my life and now I find myself facing another roadblock.

TREFNY: So the City Council held that hearing last week, and Judge Robert Freedman is making his own considerations right now. Does it look like this Fruitvale injunction is going to happen, Ali?

WINSTON: Well, it's become quite a political battle. City Attorney John Russo has been publicly feuding with Mayor Jean Quan over the injunction strategy. Lawyers from the firm of her advisor, Dan Siegel, are representing the Fruitvale defendants, including Siegel's son, Michael. Russo has indicated he may jump ship if he is offered the job of City Manager in Alameda. And if he does leave that could spell the end for this anti-gang initiative.

If Russo leaves, Mayor Quan could direct the Oakland Police Department to stop enforcing the existing injunction, which is a pretty expensive undertaking. At last count, more than $760,000 has been spent on legal and policing costs for the North Oakland and Fruitvale injunctions, and with court proceedings dragging on in the latter case, those figures are undoubtedly higher now.

TREFNY: So, there are some signs that the injunction may fall apart, but what happens if it passes? What happens for these 40 people who’ve been named so far.

WINSTON: So, if the injunction is approved, then these 40 defendants – or how ever many the judge determines are Norteño members – will be identified as gang members by the court and their associations and movements will be restricted by the conditions of the court order imposed by Judge Freedman. This is an important case for how Oakland deals with crime, and the eyes of the city are definitely on Judge Freedman and his ruling ... if this one passes, there could be another injunction currently in the works.