Sunday, October 4 , 2015, 5:21 pm | Partly Cloudy 61º

As Santa Barbara Awaits Gang-Injunction Ruling, Three Nearby Cities Provide Perspective

Mission & State Report: Lompoc and Oxnard officials tout the success of gang injunctions as a crime deterrent, but Santa Maria cites a decline in the murder rate as one reason to opt out

“We don’t target races, we target criminals,” Lompoc Police Chief Larry Ralston says of the city’s two gang injunctions.
“We don’t target races, we target criminals,” Lompoc Police Chief Larry Ralston says of the city’s two gang injunctions.  (Joshua Molina / Mission & State photo)

By Joshua Molina, Mission & State Senior Staff Writer |

[Click here to read other stories from the Mission & State in-depth journalism project.]

In Santa Barbara, a city of celebrity, wealth and stature, gangs hold their own brand of power.

While it’s not on the level of the violence that accompanies some larger cities in California, Santa Barbara has long wrestled with gang problems, with State Street serving as a center divider of Eastside and Westside gang members.

Lately, the problem has gotten so bad that law enforcement and the Santa Barbara City Council have requested a gang injunction to crack down on gang offenders.

Originally, the proposed gang injunction list included the names of 30 so-called, worst-of-the-worst offenders. The list is now down to 11.

Many of those targeted then are either in prison or have moved out of the area, and have been removed from the list.

The fate of the gang injunction now rests in the hands of Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne, who is scheduled to rule on the request this summer. The proposed injunction has sparked wide community interest, with advocates on both sides of the debate.

Santa Barbara’s proposed injunction calls for four “safety zones”: the Eastside and Westside neighborhoods, parks all over the city, and a special-event zone along the waterfront, where gang-related assaults have occurred during Fourth of July and Old Spanish Days celebrations.

The injunction has sparked a political fight among council members and a backlash among some community activist groups that feel the injunction targets Latinos and that it infringes on their civil rights.

With Santa Barbara struggling with the possibility of a gang injunction, two nearby communities — Oxnard and Lompoc — tout the benefits of injunctions in their own cities to combat gang crime.

A third city with a high crime rate — Santa Maria — has shied away from a gang injunction, choosing instead to fight gang crime through increased police enforcement.

In 2003, 22 men were murdered in Oxnard. Half of the deaths were gang-related.

The City of Oxnard has two gang injunctions that its Police Department uses to combat the criminal activities of an estimated 1,300 gang members. (Joshua Molina / Mission & State photo)

The bloodshed was the start of grisly trend. During a four-year span, 72 people were killed in Oxnard, 36 of them attributed to gang warfare.

Oxnard — a city of 201,555 residents with a thriving middle class of upwardly mobile professionals — has two main gangs, the Colonia Chiques and the Southside Chiques.

Colonia is Ventura County’s largest gang, with an estimated 1,000 members. Southside has about 300 members.

“They have always been deadly rivals,” Oxnard police Sgt. Alex Arnett said.

The turning point came in 2003 with the 22 homicides. Oxnard knew it had to do something to stop the violence.

In response to the gang violence, the city of Oxnard in 2005 successfully pursued a gang injunction against its most dangerous gang, the Colonia Chiques. The next year, Oxnard police obtained a separate gang injunction, against the Southside Chiques, the Colonia Chiques’ No. 1 rival.

Oxnard's largest gang, with 1,000 members, takes its name from a neighborhood in the city. (Josh Molina / Mission & State photo)

After both gang injunctions were put into place, the number of homicides plunged  to just nine in 2007 from 22 in 2003. Only one of the 2007 deaths was at the hands of a gang member.

“As long as the gang injunction saves one person from a beat-down or saves a life, it’s worth it,” Arnett said. “If we can do that, then to me, I think we are successful.”

“It’s our job as law enforcement to protect members of the community,” he added. “At that time, traditional tools were not working. We had to go out of the box.”

The Oxnard gang injunctions include 14 prohibitions, the most significant of which prevent gang members from wearing attire associated with their gang and from hanging out with other gang members in the safety zones. Just because someone is in a gang doesn’t mean he or she is on the gang injunctions list.

Arnett said talk of a gang injunction often frightens people, but that’s usually because they don’t understand how it works.

“People are afraid of what they don’t know,” he said. “So if you take the time to educate them, it breaks down those walls.”

There are currently 289 Colonia gang members on one Oxnard injunction list, and 69 Southside members on the other.

“We are talking about a very small portion of the population,” Arnett said. “Individuals served with gang injunctions have a long record of crime.”

Some people in Oxnard, however, object to the gang injunctions and their effects on people who live in the targeted neighborhoods.

The gang injunctions in Oxnard have been "totally negative," according to Elliott Gabriel of Colectivo Todo Poder al Pueblo. (Yazmin Gaspar photo)

“The police have viewed most youth in those communities as gang members, whether they are on the gang injunction or not,” said Elliott Gabriel, a member of Colectivo Todo Poder al Pueblo, a group that advocates on behalf of Latino working class families.

The group has been active in criticizing the Oxnard Police Department in conjunction with the 2012 shooting of Alfonso Limon Jr., who was jogging when he was shot and killed by Oxnard police.

Moments before the shooting, officers had pulled over a vehicle with three men inside. One man surrendered, but two others ran from the vehicle and opened fire on the officers.

The officers shot and killed one man and injured another, but accidentally shot and killed Limon, who was considered an innocent bystander.

Earlier this year, the Oxnard Police Department agreed to pay Limon’s family $6.7 million for the wrongful shooting.

“Because he was a short-haired Hispanic, Mexican, Chicano youth he was targeted,” Gabriel said. “The gang injunction has been entirely negative. It hasn’t done anything to stem the violence in the community. We feel there are other ways to approach the issue of violence in the community.”

Gabriel supports funding for vocational training and educational and prevention programs for youth.

The gang injunction, he said, “opens the door to a degrading of our constitutional rights. People should not be able to go after someone on the assumption that they might commit a crime. It really opens the door to a dark situation to all of our rights.”

Oxnard Mayor Tim Flynn, however, disagrees and says the injunctions save lives. Flynn believes law enforcement should stay focused on adding gang members to the lists if they belong there.

“Our goal is not to slap this on someone permanently,” he said. “But we have individuals engaged in domestic terrorism.”

The Oxnard Police Department also has the power to add or remove people from the gang injunction lists. Since the injunctions were implemented, Oxnard has removed 20 Colonia gang members and 11 Southside members.

But the fluidity of the lists has sparked alarm from Flynn, a major proponent of the injunctions. At a recent council meeting, he questioned why only two gang members from Colonia and none from Southside have been added to the lists so far in 2014.

By way of contrast, in 2008, 154 Colonia members and 21 Southside members were added to the injunction lists. Since that time, the number of people added to the gang injunction lists for both gangs has steadily declined.

Flynn, a high school teacher, said 70 percent of his social group has moved out of Oxnard to places such as Camarillo to avoid the gang issues. The gang injunctions, he said, have made Oxnard safer.

In Santa Barbara, much of the opposition has centered on whether an injunction would serve as an excuse to target and arrest minorities, rather than focus on prevention programs. Some people believe an injunction would hurt property values.

Santa Barbara Councilwoman Cathy Murillo says she worries that a gang injunction would "create a negative overlay on our community."

Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Cathy Murillo is one of them.

“I live on the Westside,” she said in a recent guest commentary on Noozhawk. “I have pride in my neighborhood and feel safe there. My neighbors are good people and deserve for the city to value and nurture their neighborhood, not create a negative overlay on our community.”

Flynn agreed.

“Nothing adversely affects a reputation of a city more than gang violence and murders,” he said. “The deaths in a community create more of a dampening of economic growth than anything. One murder in a town has the effect of a fire burning a forest to the ground.”

Flynn said he supports prevention and education programs to prevent gangs, but that it is clear from the data that gang violence has dropped since the injunctions began.

“You don’t belong to a gang because you want to do good for the community,” he said.

In the city of Lompoc, meanwhile, law-enforcement officers also tout the benefits of a gang injunction.

“Being a gang member isn’t as enticing as it was a few years ago,” Police Chief Larry Ralston said. “Our kids are thinking twice about joining a gang.”

Lompoc has about 300 active gang members and about 200 on the gang injunction list. Like Oxnard, the two largest gangs in Lompoc are predominantly Mexican gangs, but Ralston said injunctions target criminal activity, not race.

“We don’t target races,” he said. “We target criminals. If a gang member is purple, we are going to target that person.”

Lompoc implemented its gang injunction in 2006, when Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown was chief of police. Ralston took over as police chief two years ago.

“The gang injunction was looked at as a tool,” Ralston said. “It was not expected to be an end-all.”

Lompoc has had two gang-related homicides in the past five years, one in 2010 and one in 2011.

Ralston’s right-hand man in fighting crime is police Sgt. Sergio Arias.

“I grew up in a neighborhood where it was common to see gang members congregating in the streets,” Arias said. “Today, if you drive around the neighborhood you don’t see that.”

Arias said he comes into contact with gang members daily, but that doesn’t give him a license to arrest them. He uses his best judgment and attempts to build a rapport with them.

“I don’t arrest every person I come in contact with,” Arias said.

Arias said he wants gang members to feel like they can talk to him. He may need them to answer questions on a specific investigation, and they won’t open up to him if they don’t believe they can trust him.

“The tool of discretion is probably the best tool law enforcement has,” Ralston said.

Santa Barbara originally named 30 people on its gang injunction list. The Santa Barbara City Attorney has since removed 19 from the list, leaving only 11.

Santa Barbara may not have the widespread gang problems that Oxnard and Lompoc have, but Ralston said that’s not reason to avoid launching a gang injunction.

“Even if it starts with 10 gang members, that’s better than nothing at all,” he explained. “If Santa Barbara were not to get the gang injunction it would be unfortunate for them as a city for the purpose of controlling the gangs.”

With homicides on the decline, Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin says he sees little reason to pursue a gang injunction in his city. (Janene Scully / Mission & State photo)

But not all local communities have embraced the idea of a gang injunction. Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin said he chooses to fight gangs through increased patrol units and a focus on gang suppression.

“Gangs are an issue, but it’s not an overwhelming issue for us,” he said. “We let them know there’s a police presence.”

Santa Maria has been plagued by some high-profile crime in recent years. A 28-year-old man was tortured and killed by gang members over a drug tax debt in 2013.

Although not gang-related, a Santa Maria police officer in 2012 shot and killed a fellow officer who was about to be arrested, after he was suspected of having sex with an 17-year-old.

And in 2013, an FBI report ranked Santa Maria at No. 10 in California in violent crime based on crimes per 1,000 residents.

Santa Maria’s high point for homicides was 2008, when nine people were killed. Of the last 17 homicides, 15 were gang-related.

But there were only two homicides in 2012 and three in 2013. So far this year, there have been no homicides in Santa Maria.

With murders on the decline, Martin said he sees little reason for a gang injunction in Santa Maria, which has an estimated 1,200 gang members.

Logistically, he said, it’s difficult because the gang members are spread throughout the community; he’d have a tough time identifying a downtown “safety zone.”

The department lacks verifiable data beyond five years to properly track the gang activity, he said.

Martin also noted that one of the reasons Santa Maria ranks high in crime is because of a large number of agricultural workers, some of whom steal cars in the morning to drive far distances to work. Most of those cars are recovered within 24 hours, he said.

Martin said he relies on his professional gang enforcement team, a strong informant system, and work with schools to prevent gang involvement earlier.

“Right now I don’t have a compelling need,” he said. “The return on investment for a gang injunction is just not worth it.”

In Oxnard, Gabriel doesn’t believe the gang problems in Santa Barbara justify a gang injunction either.

“I do think the same criticisms that I have of the Oxnard injunctions apply in Santa Barbara,” he said.

“In Santa Barbara, there is no major gang problem. People can see the so-called solution is not proportionate to the problem itself. It follows the national trend of dragnet policing as well as the criminalization of working class youth of color.”

The Rev. Edgar Mohorko, a gang-intervention expert and president of the National Police Clergy Council, however, believes that gang injunctions work as one tool to combat gangs. No one really knows how they are going to work, he said, until they are put into place in a specific community.

Mohorko helps battle gangs throughout California. He said injunctions serve as a deterrent for gang members. People on the list don’t want to be served with an injunction, he said.

An injunction, in tandem with programs that help young people with résumé building, job placement and counseling, would be the ideal, he said.

“I believe the gang injunctions have had a positive effect in helping to reduce crime,” Mohorko said. “However, if there are no other options, no other alternatives, all it is going to be is a revolving door for crime because it is only going to work for a little bit of time.”

— Joshua Molina is a senior reporter for the Mission & State in-depth journalism project. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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