Innovative Injunctions Wrest Long Beach Streets from Gang’s Grip

Drake Park in Long Beach, California, looked just as it should late one recent April afternoon as Detective Chris Zamora took two guests on a tour of the city’s north side—children on swings; parents chatting on benches; and kids playing basketball. However, the appearance of a young man in a Lakers jersey and baggy shorts riding a bicycle on the sidewalk prompted Zamora to slow down and take a closer look.

“You know you’re not supposed to ride that bike on the sidewalk,” Zamora said, as he brought his unmarked black Impala to a slow stop. The young man said he didn’t know that and thanked Zamora for the warning. Then Zamora asked about his tattoo, three small dots between the young man’s thumb and forefinger. The young man looked down at his hand, smiled sheepishly and said, “Oh, that? It’s nothing.”

The tattoo is something. The three dots stand for “Mi Vida Loca” or “My Crazy Life,” and they are commonly worn by gang members in Southern California. “He’s no gangster,” Zamora said, as he pulled away. “He just wants to look tough. It impresses girls.”

It was the tattoo that prompted Zamora to stop the young man, but it was the bike riding that could have landed the man in jail for 90 days. Long Beach, like many other cities in Southern California, has a gang problem. Yet in five hours patrolling the city’s toughest neighborhoods, the closest Zamora came to finding a gang member was the young man on the bike. Over two years—2010 and 2011—gang-related killings in the city dropped nearly 60 percent. As the whole state struggles with a spike in crime due to the court-mandated release of thousands of state prisoners to reduce overcrowding, Long Beach residents are no longer fearful of walking their streets at night or enjoying places like Drake Park.1

This change is due largely to the police department’s decision in 2010 to completely reengineer the city’s 18-year-old gang injunction program and take enforcement of that program out of detectives’ hands and place it instead in the hands of the hundreds of officers patrolling Long Beach streets day and night. Court injunctions have been used to curb gang activity in Southern California cities for 25 years, but Long Beach’s use of technology to leverage their impact on the streets is entirely new, and that impact is obvious on the streets, alleys, and parks of Long Beach.