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Wed October 5, 2011
'Safety Zone' Bans Meetings Of Alleged Gang Members
A controversial law enforcement technique called a gang injunction "safety zone" has been getting the attention of law enforcement in at least eight states. Essentially, it lists people police say are gang members and bans them from meeting or even speaking to each other inside a defined geographic area.
Police in Wyandanch, N.Y., are trying to convince a judge that curtailing rights normally protected under the Constitution can make their community safer.
Law enforcement officials need two key things for a gang injunction safety zone: a place troubled by gangs, and a list of gang members. In a small corner of Wyandanch, a far-flung suburb of New York City, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is pushing to create a safety zone.
Levy sees it as an experimental tool police can use to prevent gang violence. He is sympathetic to critics who say the zones violate people's freedom of speech and right to assemble. But he says police should be able to constrain people with criminal pasts.
"Things change when you're convicted and there are conditions placed upon your future, and that's exactly what's happening in this case," Levy says. "The great thing about this process is it gives the opportunity for due process."
Youth counselor Heath Broughton grew up in Wyandanch and says gang violence has gotten bad. He points out a prostitute, people drinking beer and a group of boys gambling at spades. Broughton says Wyandanch is "a needy, needy town" and would benefit from a safety zone.
"It is a violent place; there's gunshots constantly around here," Broughton says. "People getting killed constantly around here."
As much as Broughton wants a safety zone, he worries police are targeting a very narrow group of people. Lots of idle youths walk the streets, along with more hookers and more people drinking in public.
"We need an injunction that says anyone out here that's doing wrong should go to jail," he says.
The proposed safety zone is about 2 square miles with lots of liquor stores, several gas stations also operating as head shops, and what used to be working-class homes. According to the census, half the homeowners have left and subdivided their homes to renters.
Anthony Clemons, who lives in one of these homes, is one of 37 young men police identified as being part of the Bloods. "I'm really not [part of the Bloods]," he says. "I'm not gonna sit here and lie in your face. If I was Blood, I would say I was Blood."
Clemons is unemployed and lives with his 1-year-old daughter. He's done county time for a gun charge, a separate assault and drug possession. Police say all those cases were gang related; Clemons says politicians are just using him to grandstand.
"Possession of marijuana is gang? How? Smoking weed is gang?" Clemons says. "All this is nonsense."
The New York Civil Liberties Union is challenging Levy in court, even though these safety zones have largely been ruled legal. One journal cites 122 known attempts to create them in recent years; only three were denied. Columbia University Law School professor Jeffery Fagan specializes in policing strategies. He says there's no definitive evidence that they reduce crime, but prosecutors love the injunctions because they make it easier to target gangs.
"In a civil injunction, the evidence that prosecutors have to put forward is [of] a much lower standard," Fagan says.
In civil court, all it takes to label someone a gang member is a "preponderance of evidence," unlike criminal court, where proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required. But once the injunction is in place, violating it is criminal. It's only a misdemeanor, but in some states it can be one of three strikes leading to life in prison.
"Basically what you have is enforcement at a heightened level — at a lower level of suspicion — in predominantly minority neighborhoods," Fagan says.
At a Wyandanch park, Jennifer Cooly says it sounds like a cover for discrimination.
"It's an opportunity to harass black people and tell them, 'No, you can't do this, you can't do that,' " Cooly says.
Cooly, a former teacher, says the gang injunction threatens to further erode her community's trust in police.
"I feel that my neighborhood is being targeted," she says. "I feel safer knowing that the Bloods are around, because I know who they are, and they know who I am, and they're not gonna let anybody bother me."
At the opening hearing, the judge considering the gang injunction in Wyandanch put the onus on the alleged gang members. To get off the banned list, the judge recommended they get a lawyer.