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.

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.

"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.

For those on the front lines, the teamwork will be a boon, as parole officers, for example, can make apartment searches that would be illegal for police to conduct. "It'll make a real difference to us," says Sergeant Horton in his office, where a bulletin-board collage of photos shows young men posed and proud in gang colors and then again, blank-eyed and bloody, after their murders.

But there is sharp disagreement about the success and legality of injunctions, and some would say this latest one is like treating a dandelion problem with Agent Orange - extreme and potentially dangerous. A chief objection is the practice of naming everyone in a gang that police suspect, even inactive members and nonleaders.

"If you adopt a principle to punish people not because of what they've done but because they belong to some group, you've opened a very dangerous door to eroding the civil liberties of all people," explains Edward Chen of the American Civil Liberties Union of northern California. "Today it might be gang members, tomorrow it might be antichoice activists. It's a very difficult principle to start punishing guilt by association."

The ACLU has also attacked claims that injunctions work. A three-year ACLU study of an injunction on the 18th Street gang in the nearby San Fernando Valley showed that reports of violent crime actually increased. The California court declared injunctions permissible, saying their abridgement of First Amendment rights is acceptable to protect public safety. This report, the ACLU says, demonstrates the weakness of that argument.

"The report isn't worth the paper it's printed on," retorts Martin Vranicar, assistant city attorney. The higher incidence of 911 calls from this neighborhood after the injunction are signs of success, he says. Before then, residents were afraid to report crime for fear of reprisals from the gang, which monitors police radios.

He points out that the murder of a landlord that precipitated the injunction prompted no 911 calls at all. "Residents," says Deputy District Attorney Lisa Fox, "are terrified to report anything to police."

But there are also concerns that injunctions simply displace the illegal activities as gang members move into surrounding areas. Horton says he sees it already from a June injunction against 18th Street just south of Pico-Union.

The displacement isn't just geographic, others say. "When this kind of heat comes down, the older guys start to use girls and younger and younger kids to do their business," says Michael Borrero, a University of Connecticut professor of social work.

In the sun-baked streets of the Pico-Union district, where few people will talk to reporters, young William Johnson is chillingly matter-of-fact about the injunction and the 18th Street gang. "They'll kill you in a minute," says the black teen, who belongs to a gang of his own. "I don't know about this [injunction], what it can actually do. Guess we'll just have to see."

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