Summer Stephan
District Attorney Summer Stephan appears at the US Grant Hotel on the night of the June 2018 primary election. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The first of the 22 gang injunctions to come in San Diego County was filed against the Varrio Posole gang of Oceanside in 1997. Authorities followed the lead of Los Angeles, which had begun implementing gang injunctions in the ‘80s.

Civil gang injunctions impose rules and restrictions of constitutional rights, similar to parole or probation terms except they are indefinite, more restrictive, there is no criminal element required for inclusion and they affect the gang as a whole and not just individuals. Because these are civil injunctions, those impacted don’t have right to court-appointed attorneys like in a criminal proceeding and for that reason almost all of the notices served went unchallenged. Like gang enhancements of the 1988 Step Act – in which sentences can be enhanced for a documented gang member – gang injunctions were a blindfolded response to gang-related crimes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. And just like the gang enhancements, gang injunctions continue to punish our young people for activities that took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Those of us who grew up in that era are now in our forties and fifties.

In the past decade, Los Angeles and other counties throughout California have stopped using gang injunctions because research has proven them harmful to families, communities, the individual and eventually society.

District Attorney Summer Stephan would like us to believe that San Diego’s gang injunctions are unique and still necessary because, she claims, individuals were selectively chosen unlike Los Angeles, who she says just included every member of the gang. Stephan has been with the district attorney’s office for over 25 years; she knows better.

San Diego placed men, women and children without any criminal record on these gang injunctions. People still remain on the injunctions today without so much as a misdemeanor. It’s hard to believe that these injunctions were meant for healing and not incarceration. With pressure from the Gang Commission’s ad hoc committee headed by Genevieve Jones-Wright, Stephan went on record stating 332 names were removed from her office’s injunctions. After I completed a careful audit, and with verification of my findings from Deputy District Attorney Robert Hickey, there were four names duplicated, for an actual total of 328. The city and the district attorney listed multiple “Does” on each injunction upon the initial filing, so that law enforcement could add people in the future without having to file another civil injunction. People added later didn’t have the opportunity to challenge their inclusion because the hearing took place long before they were added to it.

Injunctions ban individuals from being around anyone else the police deem gang members even if neither has a criminal record. That can mean children are banned from seeing their own parents or siblings. Adult curfews are imposed, colors of clothing are not allowed, littering or being too loud in public could result in contempt of court.

Of all of the restrictions, the most impactful has been the off-limit “target area” – a precise location that is off limits to individuals named on the gang injunction. A “target area” could be a park, an apartment complex or the bulk of the entire city. In California only 8 percent of gang injunctions listed an off-limit “target area” while 100 percent of San Diego’s include one. The West Coast Crip gang injunction alone named twenty “target areas”. If the whole family couldn’t afford to move out of the target area, then the individual left alone. Men were forced to abandon their children, relationships and marriages failed, generations were changed and the emotional health of the outcast individual suffered. People couldn’t move their families because, as law enforcement officers said when asked, over 80 percent of these target areas are impoverished.

Sadly, most people believe that gang members are universally bad and anything anti-gang, like injunctions and enhancements, must be great. Where do people think these “gang members” came from? These are the fathers, husbands, sons and brothers of the communities that these elected leaders are claiming to save.

Stephan would like the public to think that injunctions are keeping our communities safe from the most violent gang-members. The truth is that the majority of gang members never commit a gang-related crime in their life. Most crimes committed by documented gang members are crimes of poverty. We have a problem with poverty and resources in communities that happen to include a culture of gangs.

The research is there. Gang injunctions haven’t been successful at doing anything other than filling jails and prisons and tearing families apart.

Dr. Matthew O’Deane started off as a National City police officer in 1992, then became a San Diego gang and narcotics investigator, a gang prosecution unit investigator, and now teaches upcoming police officers.

In his book on gang injunctions, he was blunt about the real purpose of the tool: “Another tremendous advantage of an injunction on innocent activity is that it gives officers added reasons to detain individuals,” he wrote. “The reason an injunction is so desirable for law enforcement is that the police don’t have the resources to pursue gang members when they commit bona fide crimes.”

Jamie Wilson is an organizer with Pillars of the Community.

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