Modern Technology Fighting a 50-year Gang Problem.
Through a high-tech application of the city’s gang injunction program, Long Beach is making it very hard to be a gangster these days. By 2011, the year after the injunction changes were made, gang related murder dropped 52 percent while gang related shootings dropped 14 percent. Overall violent crime was down 13.5 percent in the same year and 887 guns were taken off the streets.
Those crime figures have ticked up slightly since, as the entire state struggles under a spike in crime due to budget cuts in overcrowded prisons. But Long Beach is still enjoying multi-decade lows on many crime measures. More importantly, Long Beach residents are no longer fearful of walking their streets at night or enjoying their parks during the day.
While gang activity here reaches back a half century, it is only in the past 20 years that it has evolved into a new kind of criminal enterprise, led by a handful of hardened criminals calling themselves the Mexican Mafia. Their home base is Pelican Bay State Prison, where the Security Housing Unit hosts one of the nation’s largest populations of incarcerated gang members.
The Mexican Mafia is able to dictate what happens on the streets beyond Pelican Bay by having absolute authority over any gang member brought into the prison system. And prison is the one place every gang member knows he will likely end up at some time.
Through its Pelican Bay headquarters, the Mexican Mafia exercises its control over Southern California gangs through a hierarchy of capos and generals called the Surenos, which are operating inside and out of California’s corrections systems. Whether an individual gang member on the streets of Long Beach pledges allegiance to Barrio Pobre, Eastside Longos, Compton Barrio, 18th Street, or any of the other gangs operating in the area, they all are controlled by the Surenos, which takes its orders from the Mexican Mafia from behind the bars of Pelican Bay State Prison.
Accordingly, prison has almost become a part of many Southern California communities for any gang member. Extortion rackets inside the prisons levy a food and drug tax — called “the kitty” and “hot money”, respectively — on all Sureno inmates, the proceeds from which finance various gang activities outside the prison.
Street-level drug sales, however, are the primary source of revenue for Southern California gangs, and the explosion of methamphetamine has fueled fierce competition for lucrative blocks and neighborhoods among the gangs working them. The Surenos have moved in as mediator, rewarding prized turf to those most ruthless in furthering the gang’s criminal enterprises, resulting in a constant migration of gang members from one community to the next. This migration has given rise to a much more vicious breed of Southern California gangster, operating with greater impunity in communities unknown to him and vice-versa.
The sophistication of the Surenos network and the constant flow of its members from one neighborhood to the next is what gave rise to court-ordered gang injunctions targeting them throughout Southern California. By banning various civil crimes — and even legal activities — injunctions can turn civil violations into criminal acts while outlawing previously legal activities like wearing colors or hanging out at night. Making it criminal for gang members to do gang things in public has made injunctions a popular law enforcement tool. Gangs depend on having a prominent public presence to run their criminal enterprises.
In Long Beach, the court has ordered several such injunctions since 1992. For each injunction, the LBPD Gang Suppression Section and the city prosecutor’s office decide which gangs to target and in what parts of town. They then make their case before a Los Angeles County Judge, who is asked to turn it into a court order. However, the increasingly complex operation of the Surenos has become a costly intelligence and administrative challenge to the whole gang injunction concept.
In many cities, to make a gang injunction violation arrest that will stand up in court, an officer first must be expert on the city’s gangs, familiar with their membership and shifting territories. In many of those same cities, for any patrol officer to make an injunction arrest, it involves numerous phone calls to those experts and police department records rooms.
In 2010 Long Beach decided to reengineer its injunction program. It started with new injunctions that enjoined the entire Surenos organization instead of the individual gangs it controls. This injunction encompassed hundreds of gang members operating throughout Southern California instead of a dozen or so members operating in one neighborhood.
Suddenly any gang member in Long Beach affiliated with the Surenos — and that is pretty much every gang member in Long Beach — could now face three months jail time for what were previously everyday gang activities. These include hanging out with known gang members, disobeying a 10 pm to 5 am curfew, obstructing public right-of-ways, intimidation, and gang signaling, and having graffiti tools such as spray paint. Since 2010 the number of suspected gangsters named in Long Beach injunctions swelled to 600, with new names regularly being added by the department’s Gang Suppression Section.
Around the same time the Sureno injunctions were drafted, Det. Chris Zamora, the head of the Gang Suppression Section, paid a visit to the LBPD’s information technology department. Zamora, a 10-year veteran and student of Southern California’s gang culture, asked the department’s IT staff if it was possible to make all the information at headquarters available to officers in their patrol cars.
The IT staff came back a few weeks later with an Internet portal to a gang injunction factual database, built through a three-way integration involving the department’s Laserfiche records repository, its existing Tiburon records management system, and the department’s business intelligence software, Crystal Reports, which ties the two databases together. The new system allows officers to pull up photos of served gang members, maps of safety zones — those parts of the city subject to the injunction — a copy of the injunction and a hyperlink to the image of the proof of service.
It makes those arrested for violating the injunction a lot easier to try in court, according to City Prosecutor Doug Haubert. He says the department has been able to take the knowledge of what two or three officers in the department have in their heads and make it accessible to the entire 800 officers on the force. Patrol officers now don’t need to wonder if they are arresting the right person. The proof positive is on their sector car computer screens.
The impact was immediate. While the city’s gang injunction program has been in place since 1992, arrests enforcing it jumped from 35 in 2009, to 140 in 2010, to 180 in 2011. As of September 2012, 188 arrests have been made for violation of the city’s gang injunctions. Those arrests have been very disruptive to the Sureno organization at all levels, according to Zamora. It is not just the street level gangsters getting arrested, but the higher-ups as well.
With the Mexican Mafia running its street operations from behind prison walls, corrections officials have been able to intercept intelligence on those operations and forward it to the LBPD Gang Suppression Section, which passes it on to the duty officers heading out on patrol each day. Armed with that intelligence, the gang injunction factual database, and the sweeping arrest powers provided by the injunction, officers can target the individuals involved in those operations and get them off the street.
At the same time, Long Beach has avoided the civil rights backlash that has hampered injunctive efforts elsewhere. Critics in Oakland, Calif. call that city’s gang injunctions modern-day Jim Crow laws. Orange City, Calif. recently lost a court ruling to the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the city was listing individuals on its injunctions without giving those individuals an opportunity to contest the listing.
Civil rights groups in other cities have protested gang injunctions for arrests based on mistaken identity, fueling charges of racial profiling in the enforcement of gang injunctions. Long Beach’s new injunction program is less susceptible to such charges, largely because of the technology behind it.
Long Beach gang experts used to draw up injunctions based on field investigation notes and their own knowledge of the territory. Now those injunctions and who gets named in them are drawn up using maps, booking records, incident reports and individual arrest records, which include pictures, tattoos and admissions of gang affiliation. All are stored digitally in a new records repository the department purchased to accommodate the new injunction program.
The records repository software needed an open architecture to allow integration with the department’s other software systems, according to Braden Phillips, the department’s administration bureau chief. So before moving ahead with the program, the department’s old records repository was scrapped and Laserfiche was installed. That change has provided the ready access needed to all the various records — photos, graphic images, text files and audio and surveillance tapes — on which the department depends when drawing up an injunction.
With so much information so readily available both in the drafting and enforcement of the injunctions, it’s now exceedingly rare to see someone mistakenly served with an injunction, according to Haubert. Should a person feel he has been wrongly served, he can appeal the city prosecutor’s decision before the county court that authorized the injunction and Haubert says almost none do.
Oddly enough, even some gang members and potential gang members are also appreciative. The injunction can be looked upon as a law enforcement tool, but it also provides a level of cover for members looking to avoid or leave the gang life. The program can’t do the important work of providing an alternative to joining a gang; budget cuts have made that an impossibility. But the injunctions certainly provide a powerful incentive not to and that’s what LBPD set out to accomplish.
Jim McDonnell is the police chief of the Long Beach, Calif. Police. Chris Wacker is the executive vice president of Laserfiche and may be reached at email@example.com.