By Jamie Brennan
At the age of 26, north Long Beach resident Daniel (who asked his last name be omitted for privacy) holds many titles; husband, father, full-time employee, and one that, despite his family-oriented lifestyle today, he says will always stick; gang member.
Never was this more clear than one day in 2007 when the 19-year-old got a knock on his door.
“Police officers came to my house from the gang unit and served me with a gang injunction,” Daniel said. “They made me sign the paperwork saying that I was part of a gang and that if I were caught or prosecuted, additional charges or jail time could be added.”
A gang injunction is an order issued by a judge against an individual or a group of people who are deemed a public nuisance. The injunction serves as a restraining order that prohibits those named from interacting with each other in specified “safety zones.”
Activities prohibited by an injunction may include the consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs, the possession of weapons, graffiti materials, and participation in gang activities including expression of physical or spoken gang signs and symbols. Violations can result in arrest and jail time.
Jessica Quintana, executive director of Centro CHA, a Long Beach non-profit organization aimed at improving the lives of Latino youth and families, says that gang injunctions prevent people from living normal lives even after they abandon the gang lifestyle.
“You can’t label a person as a gang member for their whole life,” Quintana said.
In 2005, Centro CHA began advocating for a gang opt-out program in the city of Long Beach.
She saw an opportunity arise with the election of City Prosecutor Doug Haubert in 2010.
“He was listening to the community. He was looking at the gang injunction in a different way,” Quintana said.
In 2011 the city prosecutor’s office launched Operation Opt-Out, a program designed to pave the way for those wishing to be removed from a gang injunction in the city of Long Beach.
Operation Opt-Out stresses four criteria that must be met before removal can take place:
- The individual must attend school or work full-time.
- The individual must secure two community sponsors.
- The individual must perform community service.
- The individual must show that they are disaffiliated from the gang.
While the city prosecutor’s website describes Operation Opt-Out as a “successful reward to those who have transitioned out of gang life and an incentive to those considering such a transition,” the website identifies only five former gang members that have successfully opted-out in the last two years. In addition, the legal pathway to get disaffiliated with a gang is unclear.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide detective Eddie Aguirre says that number is insignificant.
“If we’re talking about a smaller gang of about 100 members, five people is only five percent that are actually trying to get out. In two years that’s 2.5 people a year; that’s not many at all,” Aguirre said.
Centro CHA has been instrumental in aiding those who have successfully completed the opt-out program. Quintana says numbers would be higher if more people were able to meet the program criteria.
“For a lot of these folks, they are under-employed,” Quintana said of the full-time job requirement. “It’s important that they go to a job training program or they’re enrolled in a vocational training program, but you cannot expect them to have a full-time job tomorrow, or next week, or a month from now. A lot of people are on public benefits, and a lot of people are working part-time.”
Diwaine Smith, community organizer at #BlackLivesMatter #LBC and a former gang member himself says the full-time employment requirement serves as a disadvantage to the very people it is trying to help.
“If the requirement is to be in school or work full time, that is hard for someone who is on a gang injunction with a felony […] so if I have a felony and I am on a gang injunction trying to get that expunged, I am eliminated from that process,” Smith said.
Finding community sponsors is also a challenge. Deciding who is an acceptable sponsor is left to the discretion of the city prosecutor, and without a uniform set of criteria, Quintana says the process can become confusing for individuals.
“There is no information that we can give them. I could make up something if I wanted to, but is that really going to be representative of what the city prosecutor is going to honor?” Quintana said.
Smith says he understands why one would need to show disaffiliation from the gang, but there is one big problem: what does that mean?
“I don’t know how to confirm that I am no longer part of the gang,” Smith said. “Do I have to move away? I don’t know what that would look like. To me it’s kind of vague and I think it needs to go into more detail.”
Smith says that mistrust of the legal system leaves many suspicious of programs like Operation Opt-Out.
“It’s a big concern because if I had a negative experience with law enforcement or the system as a whole, I kind of don’t believe you. It’s a trust issue now,” Smith said.
In her work, Quintana encounters individuals in their 30s and 40s who have now “aged-out” of their gangs. Many with families and jobs, Quintana says they continue to face hardship because of their gang status, and opt-out criteria should be more flexible.
“Some people did need a second chance that were gang members. They were changing, they became more mature. They didn’t want that lifestyle anymore, so we could no longer keep them pigeonholed to that lifestyle. Because you can’t leave that lifestyle if you still have this injunction pending over you,” Quintana said.
Eight years after the incident that landed him on a gang injunction, Daniel continues to practice his own type of “opt-out.”
“It’s not like you can just turn it off and say from one day to the next and say, ‘I’m not a gang member anymore.’ I’m not about what a typical gang member would be about. I’m doing my own thing,” Daniel said. “I grew up. People grow up. I have kid now. I have someone else to answer for besides myself.”