Beware the “Gang Fiesta.” Expect a post-apocalyptic city overrun by gang-bangers. Similar comments littered local message boards in the immediate aftermath of Judge Colleen Sterne’s decision to strike down the Santa Barbara gang injunction — a proposed mandate that would have curtailed the activities of those labeled as gang affiliates.
It has been two months since Judge Sterne’s ruling and so far none of these predications have been fulfilled.
Instead, police have identified and apprehended numerous perpetrators of gang crime by doing their jobs: investigating and attending to crime and crime reports. Just this past week, one of the principal leaders of the Sureños gang in Santa Barbara County, Raymond Macias, was sentenced to life without the opportunity for parole based on the combined investigative work of Santa Barbara, Lompoc and Santa Maria police departments.
It is just as easy, in hindsight, to laud a decision that has so far worked out as it is impossible to predict what the outcome will be when a decision must be made. And in the case of organized violence, fear certainly pushes the legislative inclination towards safety at any cost.
The injunction trial featured examples of public intimidation worthy of a Ray Chandler novel, featuring the cryptically-labeled informant “Mister X,” who claimed the Mexican Mafia, La Eme, was laying low until the gang injunction was struck down. His implication: if the injunction was denied, all hell would break loose.
To many, an increased police presence and additional sanctions sounds secure, the idea of “public defenders” guarding their constituents from harm seems like the right measure for those in danger. To protect the innocent, increase the guards and their punishing power.
Except unlike opposing armies, the common threats to public safety dress like and are embedded in the social life of those who would be protected. Issuing restrictions against appearance and association fails to address any markers of criminality beyond the superficial, thereby creating appearance-based stereotypes that can contribute to unjustified profiling of innocent people.
As was pointed out multiple times during the injunction trial, police have the tools to defend, and more importantly, work with a specific community. It is sweeping mandates like gang injunctions that help transition that role into the offensive, and into expectations of the police primarily as controllers instead of responders. The response seems reasonable in an area of constant, concentrated violence, but impractical and rife with collateral damage in a community like downtown SB.
And neither of these roles, controller nor responder, fully meets the challenges posed by a human threat. Police are not robots for a reason. They have the proven capacity to build a dialogue with at-risk individuals, and work over time in an assigned area to prevent a potential threat from escalating into violence.
Recently, the group PODER (People Organized for the Defense and Equal Rights of SB Youth) has challenged police to respond to allegations of discrimination, and stated that some accused accept long jail sentences or unfair plea deals to avoid antagonizing police.
Whether or not individual cases are the product of discrimination, the perception and dynamic of distrust do exist, have very real consequences and must be overcome. For many people, the reality is that they would rather forgo disputing convictions or avoid reporting a crime than challenge a system that can do just as much harm as it can good.
In his closing remarks during the injunction trial, Deputy Public Defender Michael Hanley offered an apt opinion on the philosophy of the public defender, to protect with accountability and full, individualized attention, not to gloss over the rights of civilians and bend the scientific basis upon which injunctions must be crafted just to create the appearance of order. As Hanley stated, unnecessary requirements of police can result in “an iatrogenic effect, where the cure is worse than the disease itself.”
Santa Barbara does harbor gang violence, it does contain belligerent college-age residents and, as I’ve learned in my commute on the 101, it contains a dangerous population of sports car owners who will risk all of our lives to swerve through commuters like a high-speed obstacle course. The individual policeman carries a burden of continuous adaptability and much of their training is uncompromising — take no chances, take every opportunity to stop crime before it happens.
But I think what will be most beneficial for our communities, from the streets of Isla Vista to parks of the Eastside and Westside, is when individual police develop a stronger relationship with individual residents so that prevention takes its most useful form. The success of halting any kind of crime in its tracks largely depends on tips from the community, and a trust in police first as individuals.
Efforts are already being made, and deserve more attention and participation from residents. Police Officer Adrian Gutierrez will soon begin a one-year local pilot of Gang Resistance Education and Training, G.R.E.A.T, a Department of Defense program effective since 1992. A June 2012 analysis, supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice and carried out by the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, reported a 39 percent reduction in odds of gang-joining among students who participated in the G.R.E.A.T. program compared to those who did not, and an average of 24 percent reduction in odds of gang-joining across four years after the program.
I’ve had extensive experience working with children, including local kids at I.V. Elementary, and I know that kids are open to ideas and that they learn quickly from what they are taught. If they experience positive, diverse methods of support, such as those being championed by PODER downtown, and work with police to understand why people with a gold badge and gun deserve authority over their friends and neighbors who may also have guns, the lives of both police and community members will become gradually safer.
This lesson carries over to the streets of Isla Vista, where violent assaults have been increasing in recent years. While no one can predict when a machete wielder will turn up in their house or a violent stranger will attack in the dark, increased dialogue between police and the people they serve would go a long way to relieving tensions on both sides.
Police conferences such as Coffee with a Cop can provide the opportunity for residents to express their concerns and offer invaluable information on the activities police monitor. People who trust individual policemen would feel more comfortable going to report a violent assault or crime, hopefully decreasing the reliance on school intermediaries with an insufficient, or at least rather limited, understanding of the legal system and rights of victims. And when police understand the lives of those they serve, individual officers become better listeners, better responders and better informed about the very unique happenings of their local areas.
Without the injunction, police are working on specific responses to various known gang activity, and are developing specific solutions to engage the children of these communities. Hopefully, this trend will increase in the coming year and community organizers and public defenders will be able to organize together to educate and learn from one another.
Violence lurks around every corner, but the increase in the number and type of community events and in the activism of those who would like to see their surroundings change are better investments than sweeping one-sided responses.
If I had not attended portions of the gang injunction trial and spoken to members of PODER and individual lawyers, I, too, might have thought of the rejected injunction as a lost opportunity. I can’t stress enough the value of speaking with these different constituents of the complex communities we live in. While I believe many civilians do fear abuse of the law, too few are taking the opportunity to engage with their local law enforcement, many of whom are open to listen.
Suzanne Becker is all about engagement — she’s engaging people left and right.