Crackdown on gangs -- or civil liberties?

Herrera's gang injunction becomes political issue in District 10

The City Attorney's Office has pictures of people allegedly in gangs. But do all of them really belong on the list?

City Attorney Dennis Herrera's Aug. 5 decision to file a civil gang injunction against two alleged gangs in Visitacion Valley is being hailed by top local law enforcement officials as an important weapon in a war between heavily-armed members of two rival gangs in the Sunnydale housing projects.

"I consider this another vital tool in the prosecution of violent criminals," District Attorney Kamala Harris said in a City Attorney's Office press release announcing the suit against the Down Below Gangsters (DBG) and Towerside Gang.

But in the middle of a heated race for supervisor in District 10, the gang injunction also has become a political issue — and infuriated civil liberties activists who say it's unfair and won't work.

Herrera's complaint names and identifies 41 young black men using declarations from gang task force members, police reports, photographs of the men sporting tattoos, flashing hand signs, and wearing purported gang clothing — and even extracts from a letter that one listed individual sent to another alleged gang member, who was in jail.

If Herrera's request is granted in court Sept. 30, it will be San Francisco's fourth civil gang injunction. Herrera secured similar injunctions against the Bayview-Hunters Point Oakdale Mob in October 2006; the Mission District's Norteños in 2007; and the Western Addition's Chopper City, Eddy Rock, and Knock Out Posse in 2007.

The City Attorney's Office claims a "cooling off" effect as a result of those injunctions. "Since Herrera launched the civil gang injunction program at the end of 2006, 46 percent of identified gang members (43 of 93) have gone without even a single arrest in San Francisco for crimes other than minor violations of the injunction itself," Herrera's office states.

It claims that the data also show progressive improvements over time. "Only 14 percent of identified gang members (13 of 93) were arrested for noninjunction crimes so far in 2010 — down from 41 percent in 2007," Herrera's office states.

But San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, civil rights lawyers, and community advocates worry that the injunction raises constitutional issues and practical problems that could be counterproductive in terms of Herrera's stated effort to reduce violence in Visitacion Valley.

"The first difficulty you observe is that there is no right to counsel," Adachi said, pointing to the three injunctions Herrera has already launched. "Instead, the burden is on the individuals named in the injunction to come forward and contest the injunction."

Contesting an injunction is expensive and difficult, Adachi says.

"There's a large amount of filing, and then there's a hearing and a trial," said Adachi, who represented individuals named in Herrera's 2007 suit against the Norteños. "It costs between $10,000 and $20,000 to mount an adequate defense."

Adachi claims Herrera's past injunctions were mostly based on allegations and stale information that could have triggered more violence. "We saw that the city attorney based its injunction solely on what police officers had alleged, officers who in most cases were members of the Gang Task Force," he said. "For instance, there was a woman who had been in a gang, but left years before. As a result of being named, her family was threatened and she was fearful there would be reprisals." The woman's name was ultimately removed.

Adachi represented a young man who had never been in trouble but found himself on Herrera's Mission-based injunction list after he rapped about the Nortenos. "There was no evidence, but when we said there had been a mistake, the city attorney disagreed," Adachi said. "In the end, a judge found there was insufficient evidence."

Adachi worries about the impact on individuals mistakenly named in the suit. "When you name someone, that brands them. What we saw in other injunctions was that people lost jobs."