Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Anti-gang injunction polarizes a town

West Sacramento's experience may hold lesson for S.F., which has adopted similar strategy
- Demian Bulwa, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

(12-26) 04:00 PST West Sacramento -- A police officer stopped Robert Sanchez one night in April as he walked near his home in this blue-collar city, though Sanchez wasn't suspected of committing a crime.

Sanchez, 18, admitted he was a member of the Norteño gang, the officer said. He also wore a gang tattoo and was with another Norteño, his sister's fiance.

"You are being served with a permanent gang injunction," the officer told him.

With that, Sanchez lost the right to move freely in his neighborhood. He's now prohibited indefinitely from hanging out with more than 125 other alleged Norteños, some of them relatives, in a wide swath of the city. He must also obey other restrictions, including a 10 p.m. curfew.

The court injunction against the Norteño "Broderick Boys," named for the neighborhood where many of them live, has stirred controversy since a judge issued it nearly two years ago, dividing residents who feel safer because of it from those who see it as racial profiling.

West Sacramento's experience may be a lesson for San Francisco, where City Attorney Dennis Herrera secured the city's first anti-gang injunction last month and is preparing to ask for more.

Herrera's action against the Oakdale Mob is narrower than the West Sacramento injunction, applying to a housing project in Bayview-Hunters Point instead of a 3-square-mile "safe zone" in West Sacramento. But it raises many of the same legal and cultural issues.

The toughest question is whether the injunctions work well enough to justify their rigidity.

"It's absolutely worked," said Jeff Reisig, the Yolo County prosecutor who sought the injunction before his successful run this year to become district attorney. "The fact that San Francisco has decided to pursue a gang injunction is telling. This works, and it's legal."

Taking a break from his custodial job at a West Sacramento elementary school, Danny Velez, 56, said the injunction hurt his son, even though the 15-year-old has nothing to do with the Norteños.

"Ever since this injunction, it's been pure hell to raise a son. They've been profiled and segregated," Velez said of young Latinos. "He's constantly harassed about whether he's in a gang, by teachers and by police."

Sanchez, who is on probation for a robbery conviction, concedes he is a member of the Norteños("Northerners"), one of two prison-based gangs that have warred since the 1960s. Rival Sureños ("Southerners") are often newer arrivals to the country. Norteños claim the color red; Sureños wear blue.

Sanchez is looking for work and says he grudgingly complies with the injunction. But at some point, he said, he'll inevitably violate one of the rules.

"I'm going to get in trouble like I was banging," he said, "when I'm not banging anymore."

West Sacramento's safe zone covers roughly one-seventh of the city, including the heavily Mexican American and Russian American neighborhoods of Broderick and Bryte, across the Sacramento River from the state capital. Latinos make up 30 percent of the city's 45,000 people.

Once an industrial backwater isolated by the river, West Sacramento started growing after residents voted to incorporate in 1987 and the city improved roads and water supplies. When the Oakland A's minor-league affiliate built a ballpark seven years ago, it chose West Sacramento.

Some residents, like Ray Martinez, are excited about the growth. "Cleaning up the neighborhood is good," said Martinez, 48, a floor designer who lives in Broderick. "If it wasn't for the real estate market, I don't think the police would be doing this."

Others think gentrification is harming longtime residents and refer to a wall that separates Broderick from a housing development called the Rivers as the "Great Wall of Divide."

"What we've learned is you follow the money," said Rebecca Sandoval, a Sacramento activist who has organized injunction opponents. "Wherever the developers go, up comes an injunction."

Reisig, the county prosecutor, said development had nothing to do with the suit he filed in December 2004. It called the Broderick Boys the city's "most powerful criminal street gang," with 350 members acting in packs to deal drugs, rob and assault.

In a move that still angers opponents, prosecutors gave notice of the suit to just one alleged member, and he lived in Rancho Cordova, 15 miles away. Reisig wrote in a court filing that the alleged Norteño, Billy Wolfington, would spread the word to compatriots.

Wolfington didn't show up in court to contest the injunction, however, and neither did any other alleged members of the gang. With no opposition in attendance, Superior Court Judge Thomas Warriner granted a permanent injunction on Feb. 3, 2005.

Police have since served about 130 alleged Norteños, said Lt. David Farmer. The group, which includes some women and non-Latino whites, also was placed in a gang database accessible to police around the state.

In San Francisco, attorneys say they will file evidence in court against alleged Oakdale Mob members before serving them. But in West Sacramento, police officers carry papers so they can serve people on the spot who fit criteria such as admitting Norteño membership or having visible gang tattoos.

The result has been a polarizing debate. Reisig wrote in a filing that "nobody who lives in the safety zone is immune from a random and violent assault by the Broderick Boys," an assertion rejected as too strong by many city leaders and residents.

"It's not as though you couldn't walk down the streets of Broderick without being gunned down," said Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, who supports the injunction.

West Sacramento recorded two homicides last year; San Francisco had 96, or about three times as many per capita.

The primary victims of Norteños, many residents said, were teenagers who were recruited or attacked for being Sureños -- even if they weren't. West Sacramento has some Sureños, but they are not subject to the injunction.

"Three or four years ago, it was pretty bad. If you walked to the store, they'd ask you what gang you're representing, and you had to be very careful," said Antonio Ramirez, 21, a construction worker who lives in Broderick. "Usually it's not only one (gang member who approaches), but around six or seven."

Ramirez emigrated from Mexico in 2000 and said he was soon threatened because he had Sureño friends. As a result, he said, he dropped out of West Sacramento's River City High School as a junior. He said he believes the injunction has made a positive difference.

But some injunction opponents say there is no such thing as the Broderick Boys, and that the injunction singles out people who aren't connected by a chain of command.

Martha Garcia, a former state worker who heads the anti-injunction Americans for Freedom, said those who have been served are either "wannabes," or Norteños who participate in the gang only in prison, or people who did nothing worse than grow up together in a hardscrabble neighborhood.

Lt. Farmer acknowledged that not everyone who has been served with the injunction is a Broderick Boy. Some on the list, like Sanchez, grew up elsewhere.

"It really had to do with Norteños," Farmer said. "It's like throwing a net out in the ocean, and you're trying to catch salmon. You're going to catch other fish."

Prosecutors and police reject the argument that a person can be a Norteño but not be involved in crime, saying the gang itself is an organized criminal enterprise.

Mayor Cabaldon called the argument that no gang exists "an unfortunate tactic" that "distracted from the question of how we can make this as surgical as possible to avoid problems."

Garcia's nephew, Richard "Trino" Savala, said his aunt's assertions contradict his own experience. A former boxer who became a gang and addiction counselor after serving time in prison, he said he was one of the original Broderick Boys in the 1970s, when he sold drugs and was shot twice.

The Broderick Boys, he said, started with young men drawn to Cesar Chavez's farm labor movement but became more powerful, aggressive and violent.

"Over the years, homeboys kept coming out of prison and promoting this stuff to their little boys and cousins and nephews," said Savala, who left the gang in 2000. "The goal was to put fear in the neighborhood and allow them to profit from selling drugs."

Savala said some people, including his brother, have been unfairly served with the injunction, but he still had harsh words for opponents of the action.

"They're in so much denial," he said. "You have parents who want to point the finger at the police and the schools. They need to open their eyes."

The legal questions in the case have been as intense as the cultural debate. One involves an "opt-out" application offered by police. Those served with the court order can sign a form saying they "renounce any actual or alleged membership" with the Broderick Boys or Norteños. With police approval, they can escape the injunction's restrictions.

Just three people served with the injunction have opted out, Farmer said. Injunction opponents say the reason is simple: The form is an implicit confession.

Robert Sanchez said he wouldn't sign the form because he would be considered a snitch.

"That's paperwork on you," he said. "You're going to get f -- up by your own homies."

The American Civil Liberties Union has tried to fight the injunction, representing four men who said they weren't given fair notice of the initial hearing. A judge, though, said the ACLU couldn't represent the gang's interests if its clients claimed they weren't members. An appeal is pending.

"You don't want to go to court and concede one of the main points they have to prove," ACLU attorney Jory Steele said.

Whether the injunction has made the community safer is difficult to determine. Yolo County Public Defender Barry Melton said the strategy has worked "to some degree. But if I imposed a curfew in the Tenderloin, crime would go down there, too. It's been used more than anything else for monitoring, to stop folks and control them."

Farmer said crime is down in Broderick but said he could not give statistics. Reisig said violent crime prosecutions of Broderick Norteños dropped 80 percent in the year after the injunction.

Reisig said he has prosecuted more than 75 violations of the injunction; one person served 90 days. Melton said two fathers were detained for attending the same youth baseball game, an account Farmer called inaccurate.

Police and opponents disagree on whether officers are honoring the injunction's exceptions for school and church, or traveling to legitimate business and entertainment activities at night.

Standing outside his apartment with family members on a recent afternoon, Sanchez said the injunction was not reforming Norteños. He suggested, though, that it might have some benefit for West Sacramento.

"Hell no, people are just getting smarter," he said. "They're taking it to Sacramento."

His 17-year-old brother, Angel -- who sipped from a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor -- and his sister's fiance, Jesse Contreras Jr., 20, each said they had been served with papers.

"How can I provide for my family?" asked Contreras, a warehouseman whose fiancee is seven months pregnant. "What if we run out of diapers at 11 at night and I have to go to the store?"

Each said it was hard for young men to avoid Norteño membership when, in Contreras' words, "it's all around you. It's never OK to bang, but you grow up in it."

By continuing to identify themselves as Norteños, they said, they were not admitting to being involved in crime.

"You're still where you're from," said Contreras, who wore a striped red polo shirt common among Norteños, "but you're not acting stupid anymore."
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