Criminal justice

A survey of civil gang injunctions

The gang plight of Southern California in the 1980s and ’90s was so well-documented that it has informed the collective narrative of gangs for the past 30 years. When street gangs are discussed with most Americans, several images come to mind. The discussion of the modern gang almost always involves an invocation of supposedly warring groups the Bloods and the Crips. Gang members are often imagined as young black men. These gangs supposedly battle over “turf,” a self-determined drug dealing jurisdiction, and that drug dealing is the economic motivator for the existence of gangs. It is this drug market that results in violence, when low-level gangsters in one gang shoot other gangsters in a battle directed by higher-level gang bosses who are safely secluded in some hideout, organizing and networking with their counterparts in other cities, creating a nationwide web of organized gang crime.

After years of research, sociologists and gang researchers have found this understanding to be untrue. Modern street gangs are not typically large territorial groups battling over drug dealing territory. It is now understood that gangs have little organizational structure or set purpose or goals. Modern street gangs are not typically allied with a large network of other gangs or contacts. For example, two neighboring gangs could both have “Crips” in their names, but be in conflict with each other. Gang violence often erupts from minor social issues that escalate into serious, and often violent, conflicts. Gang researchers have found that the main function of a gang is more similar to a college fraternity or other social groups, with the main purpose being hanging out or partying, while rallying around a certain neighborhood or housing project.

Download our fact sheet on civil gang injunctions (PDF).

History of gang injunctions

To understand civil gang injunction’s (CGI) place in modern criminal justice policy, one must first understand what civil law refers to. In brief, civil law deals with issues involving private or personal relations between two parties, like divorce, marriage, lawsuits, etc. A civil injunction is simply a court order that requires an entity to do or stop doing something, like a restraining order or cease and desist letter. This legal action falls within the bounds of civil law, as opposed to criminal law, and is tried in a separate court from criminal proceedings.

The use of civil law against gang activity arose innocently enough. The first application of an injunction against a gang was in 1980 in Santa Ana, California. The nuisance abatement was filed against a gang hangout that had created a hub of crime in the neighborhood. The injunction first filed was denied by the court; however, a temporary restraining order that specifically listed the alleged gang members was filed, and the public nuisance was no longer an issue. Within the next six years, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office implemented three abatements/injunctions that involved gangs. All three notices were served to the owners or residents of individual houses that were nuisances to their neighborhoods. These abatements reportedly stopped the behavior that was negatively affecting the neighborhood.

In 1982, the LA city attorney issued injunctions against three gangs, including over seventy specifically named gang members, prohibiting them from applying graffiti. While the application of graffiti to public or private property was already a crime, the enjoining of an entire gang as an unincorporated entity without a specified address was new. The Dogtown injunction, as it was known, was a perceived success. Inspired by this new tool, the LA city attorney filed an injunction in an attempt to deal with the drug dealing and violence present in the Cadillac/Corning section of LA. This injunction sought new restrictions on the gang members it attempted to enjoin. Among these were the prohibition of remaining in a public street for more than five minutes and prohibiting having visitors for more than ten minutes in a private residence. These restrictions, along with sixteen other provisions, were found in clear violation of basic constitutional liberties by the LA county judge. However, other provisions were upheld. Twenty-three listed members of the Playboy Gangster Crips were prohibited from trespassing, vandalism, blocking free ingress and egress, and threatening citizens. These acts were already illegal under California law, but the civil nature of the injunction was nonetheless new, giving police the ability to act swiftly with a prescribed consequence for these actions, without having to wait on a lengthy criminal trial, anywhere in the city of Los Angeles.

After a hiatus, the use of gang injunctions was reintroduced in 1992 in Burbank City after a shooting of two innocent civilians by the Barrio Elmwood Rifa gang who mistakenly identified them as members of a rival gang. This injunction area comprised a city block and was the first to contain a fully fledged non-association clause, prohibiting any listed gang member from appearing in public view with another listed gang member. Following this initiative, injunctions were filed more and more commonly, totaling forty over the next ten years, and even spreading out to multiple counties around Los Angeles.

The constitutional and legal challenges of gang injunctions were apparent from the beginning, and the issue only increased as injunctive action became more common. In 1993, an Orange County judge struck down an injunction against the West Trece gang that banned the fifty-nine defendants from appearing with each other in public view. While the gang’s harm to the community was acknowledged, the judge called the non-association clause an “impermissible invasion of privacy.” Likewise, in 1994, an Oakland City judge ruled against an injunction, arguing that there was already an adequate remedy in the realm of criminal law and that “… use of the civil court’s equity powers to prohibit criminal behavior must be strictly circumscribed and cannot, in the pursuit of expediency, substitute for traditional criminal prosecution with its attendant constitutional safeguards.”

California Supreme Court steps in

With this mounting pressure around the constitutionality of gang injunctions, two cases eventually found their way to the California Supreme Court. The second of these, People v. Acuna, arose from a 1993 injunction filed by San Jose City against thirty-eight gang members of two gangs in an area called Rocksprings. Eleven defendants appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals, calling the injunction impermissibly vague and overbroad, as well as a restraint on their freedom of speech and association. The Sixth District Court eventually removed all noncriminal provisions, including the prohibition of gang signs and wearing gang clothing, which were found to fall under the protection of free speech. The non-association clause was found to be vague and overbroad, and other clauses were edited to forbid only already-illegal activity. The District Court also addressed the issue of gang membership and who could be enjoined. The court maintained that five of the six enjoined had already been implicated in the sale and possession of narcotics. The remaining individual, although a self-proclaimed gang member, was ruled to have no personal connection to the illegal conduct. The removal of the non-association clause represented a potential undoing of the use of civil gang injunctions. Therefore, worried about the precedent that this would set, the San Jose City district attorney appealed the case to the California Supreme Court.

This high publicity hearing brought forth the strongest arguments both for and against CGIs. The city of San Jose argued that the injunction was essentially useless without the non-association and non-intimidation provisions, because it was these very actions that were causing the public nuisance to the people of Rocksprings in the first place. Conversely, the defense argued that the usage of a civil gang injunction established a “mini-penal code” that placed parole conditions on individuals who had never been found guilty of these crimes in criminal court. The defense also asserted that the injunction was necessitated by a failure in law enforcement, as evidenced by there being no criminal charges against the defendants even though they were being accused of committing criminal acts.

The California Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision 4–3, ruling that the non-association and non-intimidation clauses were, in fact, constitutional. The court upheld the usage of public nuisance injunctions against gangs, declaring that the centuries-old practice has its foundations in “the maintenance of public order — tranquility, security, and protection — when the criminal law proves inadequate.” The court decreed that the First Amendment protections on association did not cover gang activity, because it was neither intimate, which covers family-related gatherings, nor was it instrumental, which includes freedom of petitioning government or worshiping. The court found that “freedom of association, in the sense protected by the First Amendment, ‘does not extend to joining with others for the purpose of depriving third parties of their lawful rights’” (Madsen v. Women’s Health Center Inc.). The court overall ruled that a gang injunction is an allowed usage of public nuisance abatement law, and that when applied to a specific and small area, is valid on those who are properly served.

The Acuna trial has now been the preeminent piece of case law on gang injunctions for over fifteen years. Since the ’90s, hundreds of gang injunctions have been issued in California and across the country. Even after so many implementations, the questions raised in Acuna are still valid. Are gang injunctions evidence of an absence of effective crime policy? Regardless of constitutionality, is there any evidence that modern gang injunctions reduce crime at all?

Research on civil gang injunctions

California is not the first state to struggle with gang problems; however, they have been implementing gang injunctions for the longest time period, and therefore the majority of research on the efficacy of injunctions has been done there. Because of how endemic the gang problem is, there are opportunities for observational studies comparing areas with active gang injunctions to control areas with gang activity and no injunctions. There are significant limitations of quasi-experimental research; however, these studies are methodologically strong enough to warrant review.

Some of the most-referenced research on the effectiveness of CGIs was conducted by Jeffery Grogger and published in 2002. Before this study, there was little comprehensive research done on the effects of CGIs; however, they had already been implemented throughout Southern California, and even in Houston and Phoenix. Grogger’s research focused on not only the actual effects of gang injunctions, but also attempted to address the issue of “spillover.” A common counterargument to the implementation of CGIs is that crime could simply relocate to areas outside of the safety zone. This possibility is addressed by monitoring crime in the areas adjacent to the injunction area, as well as neighborhoods farther away.

Grogger uses crime counts collected from the FBI as a measure rather than calls for service. He measures the change in crime between an average of the five quarters preceding and the year proceeding the injunction in the enjoined area, the area adjacent to the enjoined area, and a neighboring area. Through a statistically rigorous process (pg. 71), his data reveals several things: First, a gang injunction can reduce violent crime by roughly 5–10% per quarter, which translated to 1.5-3 crimes per quarter in the sample area, most of which were assaults. Second, there is a possibility of crime spillover, but there is also a possibility that surrounding areas experience lower crime rates. Grogger concludes that gang injunctions appear to be somewhat effective, but are on the lower end of efficacy compared to other place-based approaches, and that their effectiveness, cost, and potential for civil rights abuses vary greatly.

In a 2011 study published in The Journal of Criminal Justice Research, Matthew O’Deane and Stephen Morreale studied efficacy of gang injunctions passed in four California counties. They studied the effects of twenty-five injunction areas measured by calls for service for the year before and after the injunction was implemented. During this period, they found an 11.6% decrease in calls reporting Part 1 (serious/violent) crime and a 15.9% decrease in calls for Part 2 (less serious) crime in the areas with injunctions; this resulted in a 14.1% decrease in service calls overall. Conversely, control areas had a 0.08% increase in Part 1 calls and a 1.6% increase in Part 2 calls. While the increase in calls in the control areas was insignificant, the decrease in calls for service in the injunction areas was significant. There are a few limitations to this study. While the calls for service did decrease, there is not data for the actual crime rate in either of the areas. It is also possible, but unprovable with this data, that minor increases in calls are due to crime displaced into the control areas.

A third study, a 2009 evaluation by RAND of a gang injunction in Orange County, revealed a different story altogether. Studying calls for service for a year prior and a year after a CGI was implemented, they surprisingly found a 20–40% increase in reports of violent crime and major violent crime, while reported property crimes dropped 20%. The overall change in total crime was not statistically significant. This study was not only statistically rigorous, but compared the control and injunction areas’ demographic characteristics such as race, income, rent, and education. They also addressed the question of spillover and found that there was no evidence of crime being displaced.

Overall, the RAND study found that reported violent crimes rose significantly, reported property crimes dropped, and total crime was not significantly affected by the injunction. Admitted limitations are similar to the limitations of the O’Deane/Morreale study, that calls for service do not always tell the whole story. Two possibilities for this result are that once the injunction was enacted, the community felt safer calling into the police because of the increased police presence?. It is also possible that other non-enjoined gangs moved into the injunction territory because of a perceived lower risk of retaliation from the enjoined gang.

Results and precautions

These three studies clearly reveal that the results of civil gang injunctions are varied. While there is a possibility for a drop in crime, there is also the possibility for increased crime by gangs who are not enjoined, as well as spillover into neighboring areas. Data concerning crime in injunction areas can be fairly sensitive. As the number of crimes that occur in the small injunction is sometimes of a small count, a small increase or decrease can seem more dramatic in scale. For example, in the Grogger study, a decrease of 1.5–3 crimes per quarter was equivalent to a 5–10% change. It seems that the most consistent positive evidence for gang injunctions is anecdotal. People who live in the injunction areas can feel safer than they did pre-injunction. However, there is little evidence to suggest CGIs have significant long-term effects, as few studies have studied their effects longer than six months to a year.

With their effectiveness being limited, civil gang injunctions must be considered with great care at every turn. It is well-documented that the potential for police overreach and profiling is high. In the wake of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, two commissions were established to review the practices of the LAPD. Both commissions found evidence racial profiling and disproportionate detention of young black and Hispanic men who fit a generalized description of a gang member. While policing practices have improved massively in the past two decades, the potential for profiling still exists. The non-association clause in a CGI restricts the listed enjoined gang members from association with any gang member, whether listed or not. The enforcement of this clause is reliant on the ability of a police officer to categorize an individual as a gang member very quickly, leaving a wide margin for profiling and mistakes.

A major tenant of gang culture is the seeking of self-preservation and belonging through the gang. The disenfranchisement of many poor youth of color is so complete that the gang provides both community and defense from other gangs. It is therefore possible that a gang injunction only furthers the “us against them” mentality that is already present in so many gang-affected neighborhoods. The minor fines and short jail times that violators of the injunction are faced with can further the poverty trap that many of these young men are subjected to. Studies have shown that gang-involved youth do not report feeling more or less at risk of arrest in areas under injunction than in areas that are not. This reveals two truths: that the desired deterrence effect of an injunction may not be effective and that these self-identified gang members do not associate their gang with crime.

Implementation in Chattanooga

Chattanooga’s large uptick in gang-related violence began in 2011 with the shooting of Aundre Bush. Aundre was the son of Larry Bush, known as “OG Larr Dogg,” a leader of the Athens Park Bloods who has been in prison since 2007. This murder has snowballed into five years of retaliatory violence. This violent dispute has grown due to the murders of Robert Jackson, a Gangster Disciple, and LaDarious Bush, another of Larry Bush’s sons, in April of 2016. Gangs in Chattanooga are known to be fairly small and not particularly territorial. These characteristics are not ideal conditions for an effective CGI. The potential for relief from gang activity in the East Lake area is a noble goal, and one that is attempting to be addressed with the current Violence Reduction Initiative. As with any CGI, there is potential for racial profiling and infringement of constitutional rights. Committing violent crime in response to conflict is unacceptable, and there are evident and endemic problems with violent crime in Chattanooga. However, civil gang injunctions have widely varying efficacy, especially in dealing with loosely associated gangs.

Peter Hagemeyer

Research assistant

Peter Hagemeyer is studying economics, history and Africana studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The East Tennessee native is also a coffee enthusiast and multi-instrumentalist.