Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne denied the city of Santa Barbara-proposed gang injunction this past Tuesday, ending a two-year fight between injunction proponents and opponents since the case’s trial concluded in June.

The gang injunction was originally brought by the city of Santa Barbara in conjunction with the Santa Barbara Police Department in March 2011 as a tool to stop gang-related violence in Santa Barbara. The injunction proposed to limit 11 alleged gang members from entering designated Santa Barbara “safety zones,” from having contact with other gang-affiliated individuals, from using gang signs in public and from making any contact with minors going to and from school. The proposed safety zones — a particularly controversial element of the gang injunction request — would have covered large areas of downtown Santa Barbara, including much of the waterfront area, virtually all of Santa Barbara’s public parks and schools and the Eastside and Westside of Santa Barbara City.

According to Assistant District Attorney Hilary Dozer, who argued for the plaintiffs, when the gang injunction was originally proposed proponents stated it would act as an effective tool to address gang violence in Santa Barbara.

“Based on the crime rates that was taking place at the time and the nature of the gang activity that was pervasive throughout the East Side and West Side, the thought was that a gang injunction would be appropriate based on what was, at the time, not only an ongoing issue, but a matter of public safety,” Dozer said.

According to Sterne however, gang violence in Santa Barbara has a lower comparative average than the rest of California and the U.S.

“What the evidence does show is the overall rate of crime in Santa Barbara is much lower than state and national averages,” Sterne said in her decision. “What the evidence does show is that the homicide rate is extremely low, and the instances of gang-related homicide even lower.”

According to Sterne, gang injunctions address the public’s reaction to gang activity, but do not necessarily prevent gang activity.

“The social concerns, from poverty, to substance abuse, to racism, — there is a long list — that underlie gang activity at its roots, cry out for serious attention,” Sterne said in her decision. “But the question asked relative to a gang injunction has to do with that very quest of visibility, and how the activities of the gang are experienced, not just by gang members and their affiliates, families and friends, but by the larger community around them.”

Sterne also said Santa Barbara “is not a community beset by substantial and unreasonable gang-related interference with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons.”

“There is gang activity in Santa Barbara and it is a nuisance,” Sterne said in her decision. “But it is not a public nuisance subject to injunction under the law.”

According to Dozer, although these preceding are generally not completed swiftly, one reason the injunction decision in particular was prolonged is because the plaintiffs were held up in juvenile court.

“We were stalled in the juvenile court for about one year in a request for records,” Dozer said.  “So some of the delay was based on the inability of the courts to process the request from our office and the city attorney’s office in an expeditious manner.”

The juvenile court’s lengthy paperwork process also helped slow down the decision process, according to Dozer.

“I think another reason that the matter took a rather long time is that the materials that we received from the juvenile court were an excess of 4,500 pages,” Dozer said, “and so defense council needed time to digest that material and understand what it consisted of.”

Dozer also said he was not expecting Sterne’s denial of the proposed injunction.

“I thought there was overwhelming evidence to sustain a gang injunction here in Santa Barbara,” Dozer said.

However, Dozer also said that despite the rejection of the gang injunction, both the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Barbara Police Department “will continue actions they’ve engaged with in the past.”

“A gang injunction really addresses behavior in a way that can’t be addressed by criminal law prosecutions,” Dozer said. “[However] Judge Sterne made some very laudable comments about the police department and to some extent even said that one of the reasons that a gang injunction isn’t need is that they’ve done such a good job in keeping the crime at a rate which doesn’t sustain, in her opinion, a necessity for a gang injunction.”

Throughout the trial, the injunction petition was met with strong opposition from certain community members and public officials. City Councilmember Cathy Murillo said she believes injunction defendants suffered greatly throughout the decision process and said she is glad of Tuesday’s result.

“I really appreciate the judge had the clarity to look at the youth violence that we have in the City of Santa Barbara and make a judgment that. Yes, there is a problem, but traditional law enforcement tools can take care of the job,” Murillo said. “The gang crime that we’ve had, and the risks and prosecutions that have been made, prove that our criminal justice system works just as it is. We did not need the extra tool of the gang injunction.”

According to Murillo, while there are effective law enforcement tools to stop youth violence, including probation and parole systems, there are also other alternatives to a law enforcement response.

“There’s something called restorative justice,” Murillo said. “Say a young person does gang graffiti — he or she spray paints on a wall. With restorative justice you take that young person and you make them paint over the wall themselves. They make an apology to the owner.”

In addition to being a city councilmember, Murillo is co-founder of the Pro-Youth Movement, a group committed to combating gang culture and addressing the factors that lead to youth violence. The Pro-Youth Movement also promotes restorative justice programming.

“You analyze the situation and try to get mentors or family members in place to create a safe structure at home for those kids,” Murillo said. “Some young people may need some extra help. Maybe academics aren’t their thing so you try to get them an apprenticeship or internship. If they want to go to college, you help them get there so that they can get away from gang lives, especially if their parents or relatives were in a gang.”

Murillo also said she challenges community members to find alternatives to the gang injunction in order to do something that effectively and sustainably helps at-risk kids.

“I ask people who care about at-risk kids to step up and do something about it so that we don’t have to look at the gang injunction again in the future,” Murillo said.

Throughout the gang injunction process, local grassroots-organization PODER, or People Organized for the Defense and Equal Rights of Santa Barbara Youth, performed demonstrations and mobilized community support against the injunction.

Marissa Garcia, a representative for PODER and wife of a defendant, said she is still in shock and knows the decision was due to solidarity within the community.

“Just knowing that the judge ruled in favor of the community is just beautiful,” Garcia said. “It’s a ruling that’s a step in the right direction towards positive community building.”


Photo by Peter Mounteer / Daily Nexus

This story is a Daily Nexus online exclusive.