A town fights gangs by obtaining right to sue them

By serving individual gangsters with a civil injunction, police can arrest them just for carrying weapons

Chicago has been infamous for its gangs since the days of Dillinger and Capone, but this small suburb – 30 miles and several cornfields away from the tough inner-city of its namesake – hardly seems, at a glance, like the sort of place that would have a gang problem.

This 50-percent Hispanic village with a median family income of $63,000 has neat, older homes hemmed in by bushes and well-kept lawns. But drive past the main street's ice-cream parlor and hardware store into the railroad-crossed downtown, and the atmosphere changes. Tattered apartment blocks here house the Satan Disciples gang, which has terrorized this 23,000-person town for years.

From stray bullets whistling through living rooms to a recent incident in which a man was beaten up by seven people with baseball bats, the crime rate here is so bad that police have gone so far as to publish a "gang booklet" for the community.

"It's something we're all aware of, and we'd like to get rid of it. It's scary," says a local librarian who prefers anonymity.

Now, the town is trying a bold new strategy to curb gang activity, that, if successful, may be adopted by other troubled communities across the US. West Illinois has persuaded a judge to slap a temporary civil injunction on 16 alleged gang members, forbidding them from carrying weapons, fighting, or assaulting others. Such activities are already illegal, but a civil injunction allows police to be more proactive. Rather than having to wait until a crime is committed, they can arrest an identified gang member for simply carrying a knife or gun. More important, they can be tried under less-strict civil court rules.

Liable for graffiti

A powerful part of the civil remedy is that in addition to fines and jail time, gangsters could be required to pay for expenses tied to gang activities, ranging from graffiti removal to costs like bringing paramedics to a shooting scene.

Already, some feel that the ruling is working.

"When the Satan Disciple's leader has been in jail before, they have floundered. When he gets out, the gang is quickly resurrected. He's back on the street now and they're still keeping a low profile. This injunction is a key factor in that," says Bruce Malkin, head of the West Chicago's Problem Oriented Policing unit.

The curtailed gang activity has already caught the attention of police departments and prosecutors in Chicago and other areas with gang problems.

"I have been in discussions with a number of my colleagues, and a lot of them are planning to move forward when we get a permanent injunction, as I'm confident we will," says Joseph Birkett, state attorney for Du Page County.

The temporary injunction took four years to obtain, and there's no guarantee that permanent injunction will come in the fall as attorneys predict. But taxpayers in this remote, 129-year-old town don't shy from long legal encounters.

"We fought [oil company] Kerr-McGee for 20 years to get the town cleaned up – we're a superfund site. Our citizenry won't give up," says David Sabathne, a senior councilman who is director of the local Chamber of Commerce. He adds that West Chicago homeowners live in the village an average of 17 years, far longer than most other suburbs.

A town reaches its tipping point

Though the state law permitting civil injunctions against gang members passed in 1993, no community wanted to tackle the complex issues of identifying gang members and detailing their activities until 1998. That's when gang violence escalated to the point that assaults spilled into nearly every area of West Chicago.

A number of drive-by shootings prompted former-mayor Steve Lakics to file the civil lawsuit.

"Filing the suit told the citizenry that we were doing everything possible to combat the problem," says Mr. Lakics.

West Chicago's gangs have close ties to gangs in California, an ironic twist since that's where Illinois lawmakers found the idea of using civil actions against gangs. A few dozen such injunctions have been granted in California since the late 1980s, and San Antonio, Texas, has also tried the tactic. It's deemed effective in another area known for tough gangs, Los Angeles.

"It has really helped diminish the presence of gang members on the street, which is a big part of reducing drive-by shootings and other problems,' says Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant John Pasquariello.

Limits to the injunctions

However, there are a number of factors that will limit the use of these civil actions. There's a huge amount of work involved and individual gang members not served aren't bound by the injunction. The actions have also been challenged by civil libertarians.

"We feel criminal behavior should be addressed in criminal court, not civil court," says Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union office in Illinois. He adds that, in this case, the judge refused to bar those identified in the injunction from associating with gang members, so that it would appear to avoid stepping on civil rights.

The injunctions are also somewhat limited. Some gangs are not tightly organized, making it more difficult for police to identify gang members, build up a list of the gang's illegal activities, and then go to court for a civil injunction.

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