EXCLUSIVE: Columbia could fight gangs with court orders

cleblanc@thestate.comOctober 22, 2013 

JEFF BLAKE — jblake@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • What’s a civil gang injunction? Typically, such an injunction seeks to prohibit associating with other gang members, gang recruitment, intimidation as well as crimes such as drugs, alcohol or firearms. An injunction also can be directed at trespassing, fighting, hand signals and graffiti. Some injunctions can order curfews.

    Their origin: 1987, by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office using California nuisance laws.

    To get an injunction: Define the gang, location and/or document the harm caused by gangs.

    Define harm: Harm can be physical injuries, loss of enjoyment of a neighborhood and other damage that cannot be otherwise compensated. Each offense becomes a contempt of court violation.

    Logistics: Select a gang expert who is credible to the court and can dedicate himself or herself full-time to the gang issue. An injunction initiative is time-consuming and must remain in place for a long period of time to be effective.

    SOURCES: “Civil Gang Injunctions: A Guide for Prosecutors” by deputy city attorney for Los Angeles Max Shiner; article in League of California Cities monthly magazine.

The city of Columbia is devising an unusual plan to crack down on gangs that would have a state judge issue directives against specific gangs, gang members and their territories, Mayor Steve Benjamin told The State newspaper Monday.

Civil gang injunctions, which are based on nuisance laws, are extraordinary legal measures employed when normal police tactics are insufficient in curbing street gangs.

Benjamin said that initially he expects the injunction would be directed at four sections of Columbia, including Five Points. He would not name the others.

Those “safety zones,” as they are called in gang injunctions, would be defined based on the Columbia Police Department’s high-crime “hot spots.”

“We’re getting away from mushy talk and deciding to get strident,” Benjamin told the newspaper after a University of South Carolina mayoral forum.

Injunctions are “an additional tool for law enforcement to have at their disposal. This is a thoughtful and aggressive approach,” he said.

The aim of an injunction is to undercut the attractiveness of gang life to young Columbians – “to make it as uncomfortable as humanly possible,” he said.

Gang injunctions were pioneered in 1987 by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office. The website for that office lists 44 current injunctions for specific gangs and identified neighborhoods in the city.

“This is not California and I don’t want it to be,” Benjamin said, adding that he knows of no Southern city that has resorted to gang injunctions.

He and the city attorney’s office have been researching an injunction since June, Benjamin said.

Benjamin confirmed that he has been in talks with police agencies in and around Columbia, including the State Law Enforcement Division, as well as with the federal prosecutor’s office. He said he’s going to Washington Tuesday to meet with officials in the U.S. Justice Department to discuss an injunction.

Benjamin said he plans to roll out the proposal by the end of the week.

If an injunction is granted, each offense by a gang member becomes contempt of court; sometimes criminal contempt. Offenders can be jailed, fined or both. Courts also may approve monetary damages if it’s shown the gang is profiting from its crimes.

Tough standards for injunctions

To get a gang injunction, the city must provide specific data about crimes, gangs, gang members and geographic parts of Columbia, the mayor said.

To build a case for such an extraordinary order from a state circuit court judge, Benjamin said data are being compiled from police and prosecutors’ intelligence files and criminal cases they have made, including gun crimes.

“We’ve got to have much better coordination (of gang information),” he said.

Despite repeated reports from Columbia police that the city’s crime rate has been dropping, Columbia officials separately will have to substantiate problems in the hot spots they want covered by an injunction.

Violent crime across the city has plummeted almost 30 percent so far this year compared with the same time in 2012, according to statistics the police department released Monday. Property crimes dipped almost 11 percent, the city’s statistics show.

Benjamin talked to the newspaper after he mentioned his plan earlier in the day to Ron Johnson, the stepfather of paralyzed USC freshman Martha Childress, who was hit by random gunfire about a week ago.

Johnson met with reporters near Five Points to add his voice to the chorus for tougher bail or denial of bail in violent crime cases. After his news conference, Johnson questioned Benjamin about his commitment to dealing with the gang problem in Five Points.

Johnson said Benjamin has not lived up to his 2010 campaign pledge on that subject.

Benjamin responded that the police department’s gang unit has tripled and that City Council has increased funding for public safety.

Guide to injunctions

A deputy Los Angeles city attorney in June 2009 wrote a 55-page how-to primer on gang injunctions.

“Prosecutors obtain gang injunctions by applying the law of public nuisance to the particular harm criminal street gangs cause,” Max Shiner wrote in a guide published by the National District Attorneys Association.

Typically, such an injunction seeks to prohibit associating with other gang members, gang recruitment, intimidation as well as crimes such as drugs, alcohol or firearms. An injunction also can be directed at trespassing, fighting, hand signals and graffiti.

Some injunctions can order curfews.

In 2003-04, a Los Angeles County civil grand jury of citizens studied gang injunctions, according to the city attorney’s office. The grand jury concluded that the injunctions significantly reduced serious and total crimes without displacing much crime in targeted areas to nearby neighborhoods, the L.A. city attorney’s website states.

Injunctions have been challenged as violations of the constitutional right of freedom of association as well as on grounds of overreaching or vagueness.

Shiner wrote that California courts have upheld the legality of injunctions and said they are effective.

“And while pursuing such a project takes time and effort,” he wrote, “the far-reaching prevention aspects of an injunction are worth the additional work required to obtain them.”

Gang injunctions target specified boundaries, often called “safety zones,” within which a gang operates.

Gang injunctions generally require submission of an “expert declaration” and a gang expert within the police department.

The League of California Cities recommends that the expert be credible with a judge, be an effective communicator and that he or she work on the gang issue full-time and do so exclusively for months.

Shiner wrote that contempt of court penalties sometimes are deterrents of themselves. “But ... the injunction also gives police officers a tool to arrest gang members for conduct that harms the community before it develops into dangerous or violent crime.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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