LANCASTER, CALIF. — As he steers his cruiser through a graffiti-covered neighborhood, L.A. County Sheriff Detective Christopher Keeling's dashboard radio breaks the silence: "Code 3. Shooting suspect, African-American male in white pants and gray T-shirt seen nearby."
Minutes later, the cruiser, along with six others, screeches into a driveway. Several crouching officers move toward a garage, guns drawn, and nab the suspect as he gets into a car.
"This is what I moved to this town to get away from in Los Angeles," says one woman, standing with residents watching the action from their front lawns.
With comments such as hers ringing in their ears, civic leaders in this African-American community of 132,000 are poised to try an innovative plan that could limit crime in the roughest neighborhoods of this, or any other, US city.
The idea is to keep those most likely to commit crime - parolees and probationers - out of L.A.'s most crime-prone areas. If approved by the City Council in coming weeks, street signs will inform all persons they are entering so-called DFZs (drug-free zones). Parolees who trespass these boundaries will land back in jail.
Similar ways of limiting the movement of criminals have been tried elsewhere and been struck down for constitutional reasons. The current plan - known as the Lancaster Community Appreciation Project (LAN-CAP) - may avoid similar legal rulings, according to David Berger, the deputy district attorney for Los Angeles county who designed the plan.
"These zones are merely an aid to judges who want to use them, not a formal mandate telling them what to do." says Mr. Berger. "We believe that is why this will not run afoul of the Constitution."
For years, Berger noticed that judges who were spelling out probation restrictions to probationers in the courtroom were often very specific about some requirements - "no drug use" or "report to probation officer monthly." But when it came time to spell out where parolees could go and whom to associate with, directions were often vague.
"Judges would say things like, 'Stay away from areas where drugs may be sold' and I would roll my eyes because who knows what that means?" asks Berger. "We believe that spelling this out is the link that has been missing until now. Judges can say, 'These are the bad areas. You may not go there.' "
Berger came up with the zone idea after studying the growing gang and criminal activity in Lancaster with local, county, and federal grant money. He found that narcotics were the common factor in a huge majority of crimes. And he discovered more and more parolees lapsing into crime again - with a high percentage of repeat crimes committed in the same areas.
Restricting access to the newly named DFZs sounded like a logical step because judges routinely instruct probationers and parolees to stay away from prior victims, the stores they robbed, or the street corners where they solicited their crimes (from drug selling to prostitution). The legal leverage stems from the principle that parolees and probationers give up certain rights enjoyed by other law-abiding citizens in exchange for their release from custody in jail or prison.
"By establishing these clear boundary lines, judges who tell probationers and parolees to stay away from known drug users and places where drugs are sold will have solid criteria to add enforcement power," says Robert Pugsley, a professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law, Los Angeles.
Despite such accolades, others say the new idea may infringe on civil rights.
"There are several potential problems with the Lancaster plan, starting with putting up signs around a neighborhood saying that certain people can come in and others can't," says Benjamin Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.
A 1996 Cincinnati law which barred convicted drug offenders from designated "drug exclusion zones" was struck down by the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002. Justices said the idea violated First and 14th amendment protections of due process and equal protection.
Residents in one high-crime area are torn over the idea of having their neighborhood set off ominously by signs.
"I'm for it if it means that we can slow down the crime that has been growing here," says Sarah James. "But I am against it if it helps to mark me as a poor person, lower my property values, and make other people afraid to come here."
Professor Pugsley is more optimistic about the results of the proposal. "This looks to me like it could become a model for what crime fighters and courts all across the country could do to help root out criminal activity, clean up neighborhoods, and keep repeat criminals out of an area," says Pugsley. "I do think it will pass the constitutional tests thrown against it."