Jim McDonnell, Chief, Long Beach, California, Police Department rake 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.
Everywhere, there is gray paint crudely brushed over garbage cans and building walls to cover the graffiti gang members rely on to communicate turf ownership. It is only along the narrowest of Long Beach’s back alleys that fresh graffiti can be found. In five hours of driving such neighborhoods, not one real gang member was seen. How is this possible in a city the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) determined in January 2012, to have one of the nation’s five highest gang murder rates? As Zamora showed his guests around, he explained.
Old Gangs Become New Mafia
Long Beach and its neighbor to the north, East Los Angeles (LA) are ideal breeding grounds for gangs. They thrive in the maze of squat cinderblock buildings jammed with tiny apartments. These are “swing” communities where poor families from diverse ethnic backgrounds regularly move in and out, providing ideal recruiting grounds for gangs always looking for new members. While gang activity here reaches back to the 1920s, it is only in the past few decades that it has evolved into a new kind of Mafia with southern Los Angeles County serving as the West Coast version of the famed Mulberry Street of the Manhattan, New York, Italian crime legends.
But there are no Ravenite Social Clubs here. The Dons and Capos presiding over this gangland do so from Pelican Bay State Prison, and they call themselves the “Mexican Mafia.” Prison is the one place every gang member knows he will likely spend some time, and Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit has the United States’ highest gang inmate population. The Mexican Mafia dictates what happens on the streets of Southern California gang neighborhoods by having absolute authority over any gang member brought into the state’s prison system. Popular wisdom among gang experts and members is that the Mexican Mafia owns the outside by running the inside.
Over the past 40 years, this circumstance has allowed the Mexican Mafia to consolidate the bulk of LA county gangs under an umbrella group called the Surenos. Whether an individual gang member pledges allegiance to Barrio Pobre, Eastside Longos, Compton Barrio, 18th Street, or any of the other gangs operating in the area, they all are governed by, and pay tribute to, the Surenos.
This all-inclusive group works like an administrative arm of the Mexican Mafia. The Sureno organization reaches deep into the fabric of some Southern California neighborhoods and, for gang members, has made prison an extension of those neighborhoods. Street-level drug sales are the primary money maker for Southern California gangs, and the explosion of methamphetamine (meth) use in the 1990s made them a lot of money.
Competition for blocks and neighborhoods where meth sales are high has become fierce and totally dominated by the gangs. The Mexican Mafia leverages that competition to its advantage by rewarding prized turf to those who are the most ruthless in furthering the gang’s criminal enterprises. Because it is easier to act with impunity in a community where you are less known—it is hard to be vicious when your grandmother lives around the corner—there is constant pressure on gangs to move into new territories.
The emergence of the Surenos in the 1970s and 1980s brought organization to what were independent gangs operating in Southern California for a half century or more. The emergence of meth turned that organization into an empire, fueling an explosion of gang violence. In the early 1990s, the first gang injunctions were sought in an effort to combat that violence.
Injunctions can turn minor violations of civil law, such as public drunkenness or riding a bicycle on a sidewalk, into a criminal violation for the individuals or groups defined in the court order. They can also ban perfectly legal behaviors, like being found with the wrong friends in a park at night, for those same individuals and groups. A court injunction is like a restraining order, only it can apply to dozens, even hundreds of people at a time, barring them from engaging in anything the local legal system deems to be gang activity. Stopping such activity becomes a lot easier when it is criminal, which is why injunctions appeal to communities where gangs are a problem. Gangs need a prominent public presence to thrive, and injunctions can be, and are, used to keep gangsters off the streets.
Reengineering the Gang Injunction Process
Cities from Los Angeles to Chicago to Gloucester, England, employ injunctions. They target certain gangs, individual members of those gangs, and the parts of town where they operate. However, the increasingly complex operations of the Surenos has made determining who should get served with the court order and, then successfully arresting and prosecuting those violating it, a costly intelligence and administrative challenge to many cities employing gang injunctions.
In 2010, Long Beach decided to make some changes. Since so many Long Beach gangs were Sureno affiliates, that entire organization was enjoined in new injunctions. These were much broader than previous injunctions, targeting a group that encompassed hundreds. It was supported by the newly elected city prosecutor, Doug Haubert, and signed off on by the Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles.
Under the latest injunctions, any member of any gang affiliated with the Surenos can be arrested and face three months jail time for a host of activities, many of which are perfectly legal for non-gang members: associating with known gang members, violating a 10:00 p.m.–5:00 a.m. curfew, intimidation, gang signaling, and possessing spray paint. Since the approval of the Sureno injunctions, the number of suspected gangsters named in Long Beach injunctions has swelled to 600, with 400 having been served. New names are added to the injunction as new gang members are documented in the community.
As the lead detective of Long Beach Police Department’s (LBPD’s) Gang Injunction Unit, Zamora knew the Sureno injunction alone was only half the solution. The next step was getting the injunction and the information his section has on city gangs into the computers of every patrol car in the department. Previously, when a patrol officer wanted to make an injunction arrest, the officer had to work with records officials at headquarters to confirm the identity of the individual involved and whether that individual had been served with the injunction. It was a time-consuming task that resulted in missed opportunities to make arrests. The work of keeping gang records up to date also greatly complicated injunction enforcement.
To get more information to more officers, the department swapped its old records repository for a Laserfiche enterprise content management system, which was then integrated with the department’s existing Tiburon records management system and Crystal Reports, the department’s business intelligence software that coordinates between Laserfiche and Tiburon. Now officers making an injunction arrest can instantly open a PDF stored in the new repository containing photos, birthdates, ages, aliases, and affiliations of served gang members; maps of safety zones (those parts of the city subject to the injunction); a copy of the injunction; and a hyperlink to an image of the proof of service showing an individual has been served with the injunction—all on their patrol car computers.
“That hyperlink is key,” says Zamora. “With that image on the sector car computer screen an officer can make an injunction arrest that he or she knows is going to stand up in court.”
That certainty has produced very real results. Long Beach’s gang murder rate was cut in half the first year the new injunctions and software systems were in place and cut another 20 percent in 2011. (The CDC’s report relied on statistics compiled only through 2008.) In the first two years since the Sureno Injunction was signed and the department’s records repository was replaced, injunction violation arrests went from 35 in 2009 to 140 in 2010, 269 in 2012, and 230 in 2013. There have been 44 arrests as of mid-February 2014.
The new injunction program allowed the department to use the very organization of the Surenos against the group. Corrections officials at the federal, state, and county levels pass intelligence gathered inside on gang activity outside. The integration with the department’s new records repository allows LBPD officers in patrol cars to then make arrests with confidence based on that intelligence.
“With the range of criminal records and our ease of access to those records, any officer can use the injunction to quickly and easily get a gangster off the street,” Zamora says. “Our department is working with its smallest roster in 10 years, and, yet last year, violent crime was at its lowest level in 40 years.”
The Technology behind the Arrests
Long Beach has also avoided the community backlash that has hampered injunctive efforts in other cities. Critics in Oakland, California, call that city’s gang injunctions modern-day Jim Crow laws, while Orange City, California, recently lost a court ruling to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that weakens the injunction put in place there in 2010.2 The ACLU has challenged gang injunctions in other cities, as well, with claims of arrests based on mistaken identity and racial profiling.
The new database software integration, which is updated hourly, allows Long Beach to largely avoid such criticisms and court challenges. Previously, Long Beach’s injunctions were drafted using field investigation notes and street knowledge held by the handful of officers in the department’s Gang Suppression Section. Now maps, booking records, incident reports, arrest records, headshots, pictures of tattoos, and admissions of gang affiliation are all referenced in drafting injunctions, which are then vetted by Haubert’s office before submittal for court approval. Finally, any gang member who feels he or she has been unfairly named in an injunction can appeal to that same court to get his or her name removed.
“We’re getting much better at targeting the right people,” Haubert says. “In the old days, if you just associated with gang members, you might get served with the injunction. Today, people don’t get served if there isn’t substantial evidence to show they deserve to be, and the vast majority of people who get served do not try to dispute or appeal it.”
While gang injunctions in other communities have seen stiff opposition from community elements, Long Beach has yet to see the sort of resistance Oakland or Orange have. Numerous church leaders and community activists interviewed for this article all agreed that the gang presence in Long Beach is down significantly, even as most of the people interviewed were not familiar with the details of the changes to the city’s gang injunction program.3 Jessica Quintana, executive director of Long Beach Community Hispanic Association is familiar with the Sureno injunction, and while she feels it unfairly targets Latinos, she has expressed overall support for the city’s efforts to curb gang activity.4 Long Beach has passed numerous other injunctions targeting African-American and Asian gangs, which are subject to the same enforcement standards, with no objection.
Commercial interests, meanwhile, have embraced the injunction, says Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association Executive Director Blair Cohn. “In the past year and a half, we’ve seen more and more people opening businesses, after it was flat for a long time,” Cohn said. “We’ve always had an active neighborhood base. People are connected. But these days it seems there are more eyes out there. More people are more willing to make phone calls. Having the injunction in place means residents and business owners know there’s a system in place, that there will be a faster response time from the PD, and that there will be consequences from that response.”
Further north, in what she admits is a “difficult” part of the city, Laurie Angel says she backs the injunction program completely. As chairwoman of the North Project Area Committee, Angel oversaw millions of dollars in community development projects until the effort was recently unfunded.
“There are so many reasons that kids can go in the wrong directions,” Angel says. “There are no parks, no organized sports, no extracurricular activities after school. Kids need that positive stimulation, or they will get into trouble. At the same time, the more consistent the message police give gang members, the better. There is almost a Pavlovian conditioning of the gang community going on here, and I really do appreciate the way the police are accomplishing that.”
The injunction has even met with some approval from some gang members. While the injunction can carry 90 days of jail time for little more than riding a bike on a sidewalk, it also provides a ready excuse for those who no longer want to be part of a gang that involves them in crimes far more dangerous. “I’ve had gang members thank me for this injunction,” Zamora says. “For many, it’s not easy being in a gang and they want to get out. We’re making it easier for those folks to not be in a gang.”
Injunctions and arrests will not solve the problem of gang violence. Strong prevention programs like the Long Beach Police Explorer and Search & Rescue Posts provide good alternatives to gangs for many at-risk youth. Beyond that, there must be adequate alternatives to the gang lifestyle to encourage current members to get out of gangs. Education and employment opportunities are key. Local governments and community-based organizations must work together to develop those programs and secure the funding to make them successful. Young people are the future, and police and communities must do all they can to reduce violence in our youths’ worlds, decrease the attractiveness of gang involvement, and provide them with the tools to become productive and valued members of society. ?
1These are the sources interviewed for this story. The interviews took place between April and July of 2012. The first three were conducted in person, the rest over the phone. The statistics come from the Long Beach Police Department.
Jim McDonnell, chief of police—appointed chief the same time the whole injunction program was initiated; Chris Zamora, Detective, Head of the department’s Gang Enforcement Section; Braden Phillips, Administration Bureau chief—oversees all aspects of the injunction program, coordinating with the chief, prosecutor’s office, and Zamora; Douglas Haubert, city prosecutor—crafted the Sureno injunction with Zamora; Rae Gabelich, council member; Blair Cohn, Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association; and Edgar Ivora, acting IT director in LBPD.2“Major Victory in Orange County Gang Injunction Case,” Orange City, press release, May 11, 2011,
http://www.aclu-sc.org/major-victory-in-orange-county-gang-injunction-case (accessed February 6, 2014).
3Church leaders and community activists in Long Beach were interviewed for this article. Most reported a reduced or greatly reduced gang presence while decrying the lack of city-sponsored activities for kids to pursue outside of joining gangs, as referenced in the article. Rene Castro, co-chair of Long Beach Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention project’s advisory council (ret.); Claudette Powers, LB GRIP Advisory Council vice chair; Dr. James Sauceda, LBGRIP advisory council, USC; Lian Cheun, executive director, Khmer Girls in Action; Robert Langworthy, reverend, Downtown Youth Alliance, Covenant Presbyterian Church; Josh Ebener, pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church; and Greg Boyle, reverend and founder of Home Boy Industries.
4Jessica Quintana, Long Beach Community Hispanic Association Program El Centro Cha offered this endorsement of Haubert: “The city prosecutor’s office is sincere in its approach and the community supports this line of thinking.”
Please cite as:
Jim McDonnell, “Innovative Injunctions Wrest Long Beach Streets from Gang’s Grip,” The Police Chief 81 (March 2014): 34–37.