EXCLUSIVE: City eyes restrictions on 140 gang members

Plan would judicially ban them from about seven protected areas, including Five Points

cleblanc@thestate.comOctober 25, 2013 

  • Plan highlights Council next month will consider a proposal being crafted by Mayor Steve Benjamin to target gang members and ban them from protected areas of Columbia. These are some of the key elements of the plan that will take months to finalize.

    •  About six neighborhoods and the Five Points entertainment district would be deemed “safety zones.”

    •  Targeted gang members would be prohibited from being inside each of those protected zones. If police catch them there, they can arrest them for violating a court order.

    •  City officials would have to persuade a state judge there is evidence to support protecting the identified areas and the targeted gang members. About a dozen would be banned from each of the safety zones, the mayor said.

    •  Columbia would have to hire more city attorneys and police to tackle the time-consuming court orders.

Columbia police have identified a pool of at least 140 gang members who might be targeted for eviction from as many as six neighborhoods and the beleaguered Five Points entertainment district, Mayor Steve Benjamin said Thursday.

Identification of specific gang members is a key, early step toward what could become a novel but time-consuming way to crack down on gang violence – civil gang injunctions.

The idea, proposed by Benjamin last week, is to get state judges to issue orders, or injunctions, against verified gang members that ban them from parts of the city, giving them no legal right to be there.

The injunctions essentially are restraining orders to safeguard defined neighborhoods or commercial areas, according to the city attorney’s office, which since June has been studying injunctions in other states.

Except for Five Points, Benjamin would not name the neighborhoods the city would seek to have declared “safety zones” with specific street boundaries. He also would not identify the gang members nor their gang affiliations.

Benjamin plans to ask City Council next month to vote on whether to pursue injunctions. The court orders would give the city a new tool to “disassemble the gang culture,” he said.

On Tuesday, Benjamin was in Washington to discuss the idea of injunctions with U.S. Justice Department officials.

If City Council adopts the policy, Benjamin said he will ask for money to hire more attorneys and more gang investigators to take on the tedious task of building civil cases. He would not say how many new hires he has in mind.

Benjamin also would not release whether membership in gangs or the number of gangs is rising, though the public perception is that gang problems are growing worse. The State newspaper’s request for gang-crime figures from the Columbia Police Department is being delayed because interim chief Ruben Santiago has been out of state at a law enforcement conference.

Also under consideration as part of the crackdown is whether to use nuisance laws to declare specific locations off limits to gang members, such as bars that have become gang hangouts.

Benjamin ruled out pushing for stop-and-frisk tactics, such as those used in New York City, which a federal judge in August ruled violated constitutional rights of minorities, who are stopped disproportionately.

The more than 500 cameras in place across Columbia might play a big role in establishing whether someone is a gang member and/or that they frequent protected zones.

Carey Shealy, owner of Statewide Security Systems, which operates those cameras, said he is interested in supporting the city’s efforts.

“I’m sure we would be willing to participate in something like that – no problem,” Shealy said. Statewide Security, which has installed roughly 200 cameras in Five Points, holds onto its camera images at a minimum for 30 days and as long as several months.

Shealy said his company on Wednesday began placing numbers on each camera box in Five Points and will complete the job citywide by the end of next week.

The numbers will help patrons and police to quickly identify where problems are occurring, especially when callers don’t know addresses or precisely where something dangerous or suspicious is happening, Shealy said.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott on Thursday said he fully supports the city’s efforts to seek injunctions.

He said his gang investigators have worked on the idea for a while and he’s convinced it’s do-able.

“It’s a good preventative measure to take,” he said.

Lott said he also has agreed to assign some of his gang unit members to Five Points this weekend.

Benjamin said the 140 gang members were identified using crime data, police intelligence information and guidelines set out by federal agencies. He notes that 140 is well less than 1 percent of the city’s population.

Efforts to add more names to the list are ongoing, he said.

The city attorney’s office estimates it might take as long as one year for the city to get the crime data and identifying information it needs to name the members it selects to be banned from protected areas, including persuading a judge about which gang members to include.

The 140 will be whittled down to about a dozen gang members in each of the protected areas, Benjamin said. Each individual gang member must be presented with the judge’s order.

Gang members cannot be barred from protected areas where they have legal residence, he said, but visiting at a girlfriend’s home does not make that address a legal residence.

Before neighborhoods are declared safety zones, city officials plan to meet with residential and business leaders in each community that would be protected, Benjamin said. “We’re saying (to residents) these guys are coming in and causing problems.”

City leaders also hope to convince people in adjacent neighborhoods that gangs won’t migrate into their communities once they are banned from safety zones.

Studies in California and other places where injunctions have been in place for years show they reduce crime and there is little spillover, according to Benjamin and the city attorney’s office.

Injunctions have been challenged in court by gang members. Some have argued they are not gang members, have been misidentified as such or the evictions are too vague, the city attorney’s office said. Columbia is trying to learn from mistakes made elsewhere, Benjamin said.

Yet many injunctions have been upheld, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office wrote in a how-to guide on injunctions. Los Angeles pioneered gang injunctions starting in 1987. Dozens of California cities have followed suit, as have municipalities in Texas and Utah, among others.

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said she knows little about Benjamin’s plan but is interested. The city’s past efforts to curb gangs have had little impact, she said.

Benjamin knows the plan will face many questions. “Everyone won’t be happy about this,” he said. “We understand that.”

Staff writer Noelle Phillips contributed to this article.

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