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L.A. to Gang Members: Don't Even Whistle

City tests power of injunctions to restrict activities of hundreds with ties to 18th Street gang.

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 14, 1997



LOS ANGELES

The hubbub stops when Sgt. Greg Horton eases his cruiser onto the litter-strewn street. Young men and women silently track its progress from balconies and crowded front stoops, where they hide from the heat in the shadow of decaying buildings. A boy, slouched on a bicycle, breaks the silence with a low whistle that is echoed down the block: a warning to drug dealers who work the inner-city neighborhood.

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"They hear you coming," says Sergeant Horton. "What can you do about someone whistling?"

Not much. But he and other Los Angeles police officers who patrol gang turf in the Pico-Union area are about to get a powerful new weapon. L.A. authorities have filed an injunction against the 18th Street gang, one of the nation's largest and most violent, which is based in the district. The injunction covers some 250 people and bars them from sitting, standing, driving, walking, or appearing in public in groups of three or more. Using pagers or cellular phones in public will be forbidden - as will lookout activities like whistling.

The latest in a series of gang injunctions, this one is unprecedented in scope, complexity, and execution. Civil libertarians have argued that previous injunctions violate basic rights and set a dangerous precedent for state interference. They are sure to challenge the Pico-Union injunction, but authorities nationwide will be watching the experiment closely. If judged a success, it could change the way US cities deal with the gangs that partition and prey on their inner cities.

"We have to give the police department the tools to deal with the issues of crime in our neighborhoods," says L.A. Councilman Mike Hernandez. "This injunction, by prohibiting the congregation of Pico-Union's most notorious gang members, is key to that effort." It is expected to kick into effect after a court hearing Aug. 29.

Injunctions have been part of the antigang arsenal in the California cities of Pasadena, Long Beach, and San Jose, among others, and officials say they've cut crime levels.

Supporters of their use received a boost when a ruling against the San Jose injunction, which targeted 48 Latino youths, was overturned in the state Supreme Court earlier this summer and the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal.

The Pico-Union district will be a unique test of injunctions' effectiveness. The one-square-mile area of cramped bungalows, some ringed with concertina wire, is home to 28,000 people, city officials estimate. Most are Hispanic, and many are illegal immigrants the gang recruits and victimizes. From there, the 18th Street gang has evolved over 30 years of drug trafficking, extortion, and murder to become 20,000-strong in southern California. Police have dubbed the local precinct "911 division."

THE injunction is remarkable for its size as well as its execution. Four months in the planning, it requires multiforce collaboration and first-time cooperation between the L.A. District Attorney's Office and the city attorney. The groundwork will be implemented by several agencies, including the LAPD, parole, and probation officers.