Fed up with deadly drive-by shootings, incessant drug dealing and graffiti, cities nationwide are trying a different tactic to combat gangs: Theyâ€™re suing them. Fort Worth and San Francisco are among the latest to file lawsuits against gang members, asking courts for injunctions barring them from hanging out together on street corners, in cars or anywhere else in certain areas.
The injunctions are aimed at disrupting gang activity before it can escalate. They also give police legal reasons to stop and question gang members, who often are found with drugs or weapons, authorities said. In some cases, they donâ€™t allow gang members to even talk to people passing in cars or to carry spray paint. â€œIt is another tool,â€ said Kevin Rousseau, a Tarrant County assistant prosecutor in Fort Worth, which recently filed its first civil injunction against a gang. â€œThis is more of a proactive approach.â€
But critics say such lawsuits go too far, limiting otherwise lawful activities and unfairly targeting minority youth. â€œIf youâ€™re barring people from talking in the streets, itâ€™s difficult to tell if theyâ€™re gang members or if theyâ€™re people discussing issues,â€ said Peter Bibring, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. â€œAnd itâ€™s all the more troubling because it doesnâ€™t seem to be effective.â€
Los Angeles now has 33 permanent injunctions involving 50 gangs, and studies have shown they do reduce crime, said Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorneyâ€™s Office. The injunctions prohibit gang members from associating with each other, carrying weapons, possessing drugs, committing crimes and displaying gang symbols in a safety zone â€” neighborhoods where suspected gang members live and are most active. Some injunctions set curfews for members and ban them from possessing alcohol in public areas â€” even if theyâ€™re of legal drinking age.
Those who disobey the order face a misdemeanor charge and up to a year in jail. Prosecutors say the possibility of a jail stay â€” however short â€” is a strong deterrent, even for gang members whoâ€™ve already served hard time for other crimesâ€¦.
The ACLU and other critics of gang injunctions favor community programs. The Rev. Jack Crane, pastor of Truevine Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, is helping Andersonâ€™s group provide gang members with counseling, shoes and other resources needed to help them escape that life.