History

Gangs of West Sac

In California, anyone can be a gangster

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Sergio Flores, 25, says he didn't know he was a gangster until the state of California told him he was. Last February, the police department of West Sacramento served him with an injunction stating that as a member of The Broderick Boys, a local Latino gang, he had lost the right to move around the neighborhood of Broderick—where he happens to live—after 10 PM. Flores told the Sacramento News and Review that he was never told what, exactly, qualifies him as a member of the gang.

"It doesn't make any sense. There are some bad guys out there, but I don't know them," he says.

Flores is one of 95 people who have lost the right to move freely in a 3-square-mile swath of West Sacramento. They have each been served with a Civil Gang Injunction, a crime-fighting tactic that has become increasingly popular with district attorneys across California. In February the local D.A.s imposed restrictions on suspected gang members within a declared "safety zone." Alleged Broderick Boys are not allowed on Broderick's streets past 10 p.m., nor are they allowed to communicate with other alleged gang members in public, day or night.

Curfews have an ugly history in the U.S., from restrictions placed on Japanese Americans in WWII to Jim Crow laws that kept blacks indoors in the South. More recently, youth curfews have forced kids inside after dark and during school hours. They typically yield suburban horror stories about 16-year-olds harassed on the way back from band practice or home-schooled teens getting routinely picked up.

When kids are targeted, however, it's arguably straightforward for police to determine whom to send indoors once the curfew hits. But very little distinguishes a gang member in West Sacramento—an actual Broderick Boy—from a boy who happens to live in Broderick. Police are left to weed one from the other.

That could be hard. According to Martha Garcia, who is leading a grassroots protest against the injunction, they're one and the same. "A Broderick Boy is a boy who was raised in Broderick," she says. "The Broderick Boys are not a gang. They are not in any form an institution."

Other residents say the gang hasn't been active for years. "There were Broderick Boys, back in the 1970s. Those guys are all like 50 now," one community member told the Sacramento News and Review.

Aged or otherwise, Local Police Chief Dan Drummond says they're still in force, and they're responsible for precisely 853 crimes over the past three and a half years. He also says he knows who they are. There are eleven criteria used to "validate," or declare someone a gang member. Wearing gang colors like red and blue, sporting a certain tattoo, or being seen in a photograph with another gang member all count.

Garcia says some of the criteria are simply fashionable clothing labels, like Nor Cal, or symbols important to the local Latino population, such as the United Farm Workers logo. Local papers and Web logs are rife with accounts of men who must now stay indoors after 10 p.m. because they wore the wrong colors, sport the wrong tattoos or were photographed in the wrong company years ago. Some 95 people have been served with the injunction, which theoretically lasts forever. Many reportedly live in the confines of the safety zone. For as long as they stay in Broderick, they're under lifetime house arrest past 10 p.m.

The ACLU of Northern California filed a motion last Friday to halt the injunction, arguing that it makes no sense to treat a gang as a single association. When prosecutors file injunctions against corporations, notice is given to an official representative. The Broderick Boys have no formal organization and no clearly established hierarchy. So public prosecutors simply pick a gang member, notify him, and expect news of the injunction to spread by word of mouth.

Alan Schlosser, Legal Director of the ACLU of Northern California, says the four men the ACLU is representing weren't aware of the injunction before it was served and never had a chance to protest. He is also concerned that alleged gang members have no way of knowing whether they're breaking the law by associating with other accused Broderick Boys. "No one even knows who has been served," he explains, "Only the police know."

The battle against gang injunctions looks bleak. They're now part of the urban landscape in Los Angeles, San Diego, and dozens of communities in California. L.A. had the first in 1987; now that city alone has 22 of them. California's high court upheld the constitutionality of gang injunctions eight years ago, and California district attorneys now hold workshops on their implementation. Cheryl Maxson, an associate professor of criminology at UC Irvine who published a recent study on injunctions, says she expects they will continue to spread, despite the fact that they've been shown to be only modestly successful at preventing crime.

Police Chief Drummond says the tactic has been more than modestly effective in West Sacramento. Violent crime, he says, has dropped 26 percent in the past five and a half months. To community members worried about civil liberties, he points out that only 12 people have actually been arrested for violating the injunction alone.

Critics of the injunction say the curfew, like most criminalization of normal human activity, is less about stamping out a specific behavior than about giving police more freedom to interfere where they see fit. When congregating and simply being outside is suddenly illegal, police have the discretion to crack down as they please, and those in violation have reason to avoid attracting attention. At a recent protest rally that Martha Garcia held in Broderick, not a single accused Broderick Boy showed up to protest the injunction. Associating with one another in Broderick, after all, would have been illegal.

"We asked them not to come," says Garcia, "The police said if they did, they would be arrested."