Los Angeles ordered to change use of gang injunctions

Los Angeles police and prosecutors can no longer blanket entire areas of the city with gang injunctions and must instead use them in a more targeted, deliberate way under the terms of a court settlement reached last month.

The settlement resolves a class action lawsuit filed four years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Youth Justice Coalition. In the lawsuit, the groups accused the city of violating the civil rights of thousands of residents who were swept up in the gang injunctions without being given the chance to challenge their designation as gang members in court.

A federal judge ruled in March 2018 that if the case proceeded to trial it was likely that the city’s process for enforcing injunctions would be struck down and barred the city from enforcing nearly all of its active injunctions.

The injunctions, which are civil court orders issued by judges, are used throughout the state and were designed to make it difficult for gangs to operate by barring members from congregating with each other or associates, wearing clothes with gang colors or engaging in other activities in neighborhoods that law enforcement considered to be a specific gang’s turf. Suspected violators were typically detained by police and charged with criminal contempt.

The LAPD has relied heavily on injunctions since the 1980s, when street gangs began to flourish in Los Angeles. When seeking injunctions, however, city officials typically asked judges to impose them on an entire street gang or a gang’s faction, rather than alleged members of the gang. After a judge approved an injunction, LAPD investigators and prosecutors from the City Attorney’s office would then identify individuals as gang members or associates who were subject to the injunction.

In the lawsuit, lawyers for the ACLU argued that process was unconstitutional since the city did not have to meet any burden of proof before including someone in an injunction.

The claims took on heightened significance as the LAPD came under fire for the way it polices gang activity in recent years.

Three officers were charged with falsely labeling people as gang members earlier this year, a scandal that has forced the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office to review hundreds of cases that the officers testified in. The California attorney general’s office also barred other law enforcement agencies from using LAPD records uploaded to the state’s embattled gang database earlier this year, due to concerns about the accuracy of the information LAPD had provided.

Across the city there are currently 46 “permanent orders” enjoining 79 different gangs or factions. In light of the settlement, however, police are not enforcing them against any individual people, said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office.

Going forward, gang injunctions can only be enforced against named defendants who have been given a chance to challenge their gang designation in court, according to the terms of the settlement. Injunctions will also expire after five years.

The settlement does not include any payouts by the city. Melanie Ochoa, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU who worked on the case, said the lawsuit’s class was made up of an estimated 9,000 people who were subject to a gang injunction in Los Angeles without being given a chance to challenge their inclusion in court.

“This agreement strikes the right balance — safeguarding individual civil liberties while protecting communities from gang violence,” Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said in response to questions about the settlement.

Feuer said he planned to continue using gang injunctions but might do so more judiciously on “a case by case basis.”

Ochoa criticized the LAPD’s long history of using injunctions, saying the department’s sweeping, unchecked approach unfairly profiled communities of color. She said she was relieved to see their use severely curtailed.

“I don’t know how many more of these instances need to happen for the LAPD to really just change its approach and to give up trying to find new and creative ways to give an official veneer to harassing Black and Latino [men], particularly young men, who are just trying to exist in these communities,” she said.

Questions about the necessity and value of injunctions have lingered for years. There were roughly 8,900 people subject to the injunctions in 2016, when the ACLU filed its lawsuit. One year later, the city attorney’s office released the results of an audit of its injunction rolls and found more than 7,300 people who no longer needed to be subject to the court orders.

Many people were still subject to the injunctions in L.A. despite either moving out of the neighborhood where the orders were relevant or having long severed ties with any gangs. In some cases, dead people’s names were still affixed to the injunctions. Police agencies across California have begun to move away from the use of injunctions in recent years, due to a mix of public backlash or concerns about due process violations similar to those alleged in Los Angeles.

While gang violence and violent crime overall in the city have fallen dramatically over the past few decades, the downward trend stalled this year as shootings and homicides surged amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The city had seen 335 homicides as of Saturday, marking a 33% increase over last year. Shootings were up nearly 40%.

Officials have blamed much of that violence on gang members, who police believe have grown increasingly brazen in their willingness to open fire on groups of people. According to LAPD data through Dec. 5, homicides that police have determined were gang related were up 29% compared to last year.

Asked about the injunction settlement, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said he supports the revised approach, adding that the new policy will ensure restrictions on gang members are “warranted and a result of their individual conduct, and not a broad based description of their gang lifestyle.”

Times Staff Writer Kevin Rector contributed to this report.