Crackdown on gangs — or civil liberties?

Pub date August 24, 2010
WriterSarah Phelan

City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s Aug. 5 decision to file a civil gang injunction against two alleged gangs in Visitacion Valley is being hailed by top local law enforcement officials as an important weapon in a war between heavily-armed members of two rival gangs in the Sunnydale housing projects.

“I consider this another vital tool in the prosecution of violent criminals,” District Attorney Kamala Harris said in a City Attorney’s Office press release announcing the suit against the Down Below Gangsters (DBG) and Towerside Gang.

But in the middle of a heated race for supervisor in District 10, the gang injunction also has become a political issue — and infuriated civil liberties activists who say it’s unfair and won’t work.

Herrera’s complaint names and identifies 41 young black men using declarations from gang task force members, police reports, photographs of the men sporting tattoos, flashing hand signs, and wearing purported gang clothing — and even extracts from a letter that one listed individual sent to another alleged gang member, who was in jail.

If Herrera’s request is granted in court Sept. 30, it will be San Francisco’s fourth civil gang injunction. Herrera secured similar injunctions against the Bayview-Hunters Point Oakdale Mob in October 2006; the Mission District’s Norteños in 2007; and the Western Addition’s Chopper City, Eddy Rock, and Knock Out Posse in 2007.

The City Attorney’s Office claims a “cooling off” effect as a result of those injunctions. “Since Herrera launched the civil gang injunction program at the end of 2006, 46 percent of identified gang members (43 of 93) have gone without even a single arrest in San Francisco for crimes other than minor violations of the injunction itself,” Herrera’s office states.

It claims that the data also show progressive improvements over time. “Only 14 percent of identified gang members (13 of 93) were arrested for noninjunction crimes so far in 2010 — down from 41 percent in 2007,” Herrera’s office states.

But San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, civil rights lawyers, and community advocates worry that the injunction raises constitutional issues and practical problems that could be counterproductive in terms of Herrera’s stated effort to reduce violence in Visitacion Valley.

“The first difficulty you observe is that there is no right to counsel,” Adachi said, pointing to the three injunctions Herrera has already launched. “Instead, the burden is on the individuals named in the injunction to come forward and contest the injunction.”

Contesting an injunction is expensive and difficult, Adachi says.

“There’s a large amount of filing, and then there’s a hearing and a trial,” said Adachi, who represented individuals named in Herrera’s 2007 suit against the Norteños. “It costs between $10,000 and $20,000 to mount an adequate defense.”

Adachi claims Herrera’s past injunctions were mostly based on allegations and stale information that could have triggered more violence. “We saw that the city attorney based its injunction solely on what police officers had alleged, officers who in most cases were members of the Gang Task Force,” he said. “For instance, there was a woman who had been in a gang, but left years before. As a result of being named, her family was threatened and she was fearful there would be reprisals.” The woman’s name was ultimately removed.

Adachi represented a young man who had never been in trouble but found himself on Herrera’s Mission-based injunction list after he rapped about the Nortenos. “There was no evidence, but when we said there had been a mistake, the city attorney disagreed,” Adachi said. “In the end, a judge found there was insufficient evidence.”

Adachi worries about the impact on individuals mistakenly named in the suit. “When you name someone, that brands them. What we saw in other injunctions was that people lost jobs.”

He notes that only a few people came forward to challenge past injunctions. “But in at least four cases, people were found not to be gang members,” he said.

At the time of those injunctions, there was no way to get off the list. “So we worked with the ACLU to demand one and the City Attorney’s Office agreed,” Adachi said. “But I don’t know how many people have since filed paperwork.”

Ingleside police station Capt. Louis Cassenego told us that as of Aug. 20, 12 men had been served with the injunction — six allegedly from DBG, six from Ingleside.

“We had signage posted on utility poles, and no signs have been torn down,” Cassenego said. “And so far, the folks served have taken it in a matter-of fact fashion.”

But Sharen Hewitt, executive director of the C.L.A.E.R. Project, a community empowerment and violence prevention nonprofit, said she worries that people don’t understand the implications of being served and won’t take the trouble to opt out. “I talked to a young man after he got served and he tore up his notice,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt invited representatives from the City Attorney’s Office, Police Department, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Bay Area Legal Aid, and residents of the area to an Aug. 12 emergency debriefing. “We are sitting in the middle of a major war zone,” Hewitt said, referring to the meeting’s location at Britton Courts, a public housing project that Herrera claims is on DBG turf. “Although this situation threatens the community, it has also brought us together. And now we are trying to pull together a legal team.”

Deputy City Attorney Yvonne Mere explained that the suit seeks to ban criminal and nuisance conduct by creating a proposed safety zone that covers two-tenths of a square mile and encompasses both gangs’ alleged turf plus a buffer zone.

The injunction would impose a 10 p.m. curfew on the 41 men listed, who are a barred from trespassing, selling drugs, and illegally possessing firearms, loitering, displaying gang signs, and associating in public in neighborhoods surrounding the Sunnydale, Heritage Homes, and Britton Courts developments.

Some of this conduct is already against the law, but other activities, including assembling in groups, is typically protected by the Constitution, Mere explained.

Lt. Mikail Ali of the Ingleside station said many youngsters don’t want to be in a gang. “This is an out,” Ali said.

But some residents questioned whether some men on Herrera’s list are in a gang. “Who are you to say who is a gang member?” asked Sheila Hill, who was concerned that her son, the victim of a shooting a couple of years ago, was on the list. “Yes, they might have done something three or five years ago, but many of them have moved on, got married, and got a job. I don’t believe you guys are really checking your records.”

Mere disagreed (later clarifying that Hill’s son isn’t named by the injunction). “We looked at criminal records within the last five years, including shootings, shots fired, and weapons possessed, and it’s a pretty violent zone down here,” Mere said. Mere claims the war between DBG and the Towerside caused 10 murders in the last three years.

Leslie Burch, president of the Britton Courts Neighborhood Association and cofounder of the Visitacion Valley Peacekeepers, said a lot of the men named grew up together, playing sports, staying at each other’s houses overnight, and making affiliations.

“So I wouldn’t necessarily classify them as gangs,” Burch said. “They are just a bunch of friends who have common interests like music, sports, and hanging out together.”

Mere pointed to the opt-out option, part of a 2008 agreement between the city attorney, ACLU, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

“It’s an option for people to say, ‘No, you are wrong,'<0x2009>” Mere said. “They can submit letters from pastors and friends, and we’ll consider that between now and Sept. 30.

But Burch challenged some of the evidence posted at the City Attorney’s wesbite, including photographs of people sporting alleged gang tattoos and clothing.

“Take the T sign,” Burch explained “The city attorney says it represents the Towerside. But I had a nephew who was murdered. His name was Trayon, and some people wear the letter T in remembrance of him. I was in court with a nephew who was trying to explain that he is not a gang member just because he’s wearing a hat with a T on it.”

Hewitt noted that the injunction follows budget cuts that decimated local nonprofits and that funding is desperately needed for programs that provide young men with jobs and other alternatives to crime.

Hewitt also noted that the injunction gives District 10 candidates an opportunity to show the community that they are tracking all the issues in this pivotal race. “D-10 has been reduced to the Lennar issue, and that’s what’s criminal,” Hewitt said, adding that coverage of the race has so far largely excluded Viz Valley, even though it’s home to the city’s largest public housing site.

Indeed, the injunction is becoming part of the dialogue in the District 10 supervisor campaign. Candidates Isaac Bowers, Kristine Enea, Chris Jackson, Nyese Joshua, Steve Moss, and Marlene Tran attended Sharen Hewitt’s Aug. 12 gang injunction debriefing. By meeting’s end, Bowers and Enea said they would help community members get legal representation. “A lot of people being served don’t know what an injunction is or don’t show up at the hearing, and then they become subject to the injunction,” Bowers said.

Jackson said he’s committed to helping these men get access to job and education opportunities.

Candidate Tony Kelly said if there are gangs in Viz Valley, Herrera’s injunction would be valid. “There is gang-like activity, but it’s small-scale turf wars, shootings. and retaliations. And it’s not organized,” Kelly claimed. “Instead, you’ve got unorganized young black men with no other options doing whatever it takes to get ahead. But instead of doing something constructive, the city attorney calls them gangs.”

DeWitt Lacy, also a candidate, said he remains concerned that gang injunctions are circumventing people’s due process rights. “In a criminal case, you have the right to an attorney — but that’s not so in a civil action.”