A JUDGE’S RULING recently barred 16 members of three gangs—The Bloods, The Crips, and The Most Wanteds—from setting foot in one neighborhood in Houston that has been ravaged by gang activity. Instead of pursuing a criminal prosecution for these gang members, many of whom had already been in and out of jail for various crimes, the Harris County prosecutors chose to go a civil route to prevent the gangs from wreaking continued havoc. The prosecutors had to prove that the individuals were public nuisances.
“We felt that the civil courts would be one way to go to get a general court order to try to clear out that area,” says Robert Soard, first assistant County Attorney for Harris County. Laura Cahill, senior assistant Harris County Attorney, adds that “the purpose and the concern of the county attorneys is neighborhood safety and security. It’s a neighborhood-based effort to clean up neighborhoods and make them safer for people who live there and people who work there…. The civil statute allows for the cleaning up of that area of the criminal element.”
The prosecutors outlined a nearly one square mile of neighborhood that they referred to as the Brays Oaks Safety Zone. This area included daycare centers and an elementary school, as well as a few convenience stores where plenty of gang activity was occurring.
The prosecutors also sued the convenience stores. “It was our view that the stores were not taking reasonable steps to try to get rid of these gang members,” says Soard.
They had video and eyewitnesses to prove that gangs would go to the stores’ parking lots to buy and sell drugs “and that the store owners and operators seem to not much worry about it…. In fact, when we first got there, we learned that the stores were selling a lot of drug paraphernalia themselves,” he says. The stores settled the lawsuits and are now required to post pictures of the gang members who have been served with the injunction. Additionally, the stores need to stop selling drug-related items.
Prosecutors went to the police for information on the gang members who were causing trouble in the area, and they received a group of nearly 30 names. “It was whittled down to 16 simply because we had trouble serving them the lawsuits because they’re a very mobile group of folks,” says Cahill. In fact, the gang members are so hard to find that though the prosecutors have been granted the injunction, they’re not sure whether they’ll even be able to serve it to all 16 gang members.
The prosecutors were tasked with proving that these individuals were gang members and that the gangs had recently committed several crimes within the safety zone.
Prosecutors made their case by gathering information from the police on the individuals. After being served with the judgment, if any of these individuals enter the safety zone, they can be fined up to $4,000, and arrested.
Injunctions are not a new technique; the approach has been used by many areas including elsewhere in Houston, and it has been particularly popular in California for the last few decades. There is some evidence that the approach works to make areas safer. A 2002 study on several of the southern California injunctions conducted by Jeffrey Grogger, Irving Harris professor of urban policy at the Harris School at the University of Chicago, found that “the injunctions reduced violent crime in the target areas by about 5 to 10 percent in the year after they took effect.” Additionally, Grogger found no evidence that there was spillover crime in nearby areas.
But Grogger says it is not exactly clear why these injunctions would affect criminal behavior, if they in fact do. He points out that the penalties of the injunctions are far weaker than the penalties for many of the crimes that gang members are accused of committing. It is possible, however, that “maybe it’s just the fact that these [gang members] are being presented with so much evidence, with so much information about what the cops know about them, that it would have a heavy chilling effect for a while,” says Grogger.
However, the injunction approach does have its critics. Beth Caldwell, law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, has particular trouble with injunctions that don’t have an exit provision. Caldwell worked with a community-based organization in Los Angeles where there were multiple gang injunctions. “There was this sense among the young people who were covered by the injunction that even if they turned their lives around and were doing everything that they were supposed to be doing, that they would forever be labeled and stigmatized as a gang member and treated accordingly,” which had psychological and real world implications, says Caldwell.
Additionally, some of the injunctions included gang “associates,” and “John Does,” providing for broader application and “my sense was that it cultivated distrust among community members” because the injunctions were not just targeting gang members but other youth in the community as well, according to Caldwell. However, targeted injunctions have cleared the legal hurdles, at least in California. In 1997, the California Supreme Court found that a gang injunction was neither vague nor overbroad, and upheld the injunction as constitutional.
Apart from the civil rights or other legal concerns, it can be a costly venture to gather all of the information needed on the various gang members to prove that they are a public nuisance. For example, Cahill says it was extremely time-consuming to gather the information and serve the individuals with lawsuits, and Grogger says that his research found that, “the way that this was represented to me, and it was pretty consistent, was that at the time, putting the injunction together cost about a year of an assistant [district attorney]’ s time.”
But the results may be worth it according to advocates. Cahill says that there is evidence that gang activity ceased in the Harris County safety zone even before the individuals were actually served with the ruling, so he sees this as an approach that is worth pursuing in the future.