On April 25, 2009, a stray bullet shot from the gun of a suspected gang member on the street outside of Loren Johnson’s home pierced a wall and killed the 16-year-old girl.
On a gray Wednesday afternoon nearly one year later, former Metro police Chief Ronal Serpas stood in the middle of the three-way intersection at Chesapeake Drive and Brickmont Drive, just yards from where Johnson was shot. Surrounded by a half-circle of police brass and Gang Unit detectives, Serpas announced the department would again step up its fight against gangs.
And on May 1, 2010, the Specialized Investigations Division added a new, third Gang Unit crew made up of a sergeant and six more detectives. The goal of the extra unit, he said, was to gather and compile evidence of gang activity that would eventually be used to seek civil injunctions against gang members. The injunctions are tools for law enforcement agencies to target specific members of certain gangs and legally bind them as part of the same group. Once identified and named in a civil injunction, if those individuals continued to engage in gang activity as identified in the injunction, they could be slapped with a misdemeanor charge and face jail time.
In the short term, adding another Gang Unit on the street increased police exposure and led to a drop in gang-related crime from 2009 to 2010, according to Lt. Gordon Howey, head of Metro police’s Gang Unit.
But the process of crafting the city’s (and the state’s) first civil injunction against gang members — almost one year in the works — still trudges along meticulously, with detectives building intelligence on specific gang activity while the Metro Department of Law tailors legal nuances. Howey said though Metro had hoped to have the system in place already, it’s traversing new territory.
“You don’t want to do something halfway when it’s such an important [issue],” he said. “We certainly would not want to be the ones to screw it up.”
Law enforcement agencies in the Southern California cities of San Jose and Los Angeles first developed gang civil injunctions about two decades ago, and since then their use has spread to other Golden State cities and across the country.
In 2009, the Tennessee General Assembly added criminal gangs to the state’s public nuisance laws, opening the doors for law enforcement agencies here to develop their own injunction protocols.
Rather than targeting any supposed gang activity, the key to a sturdy gang civil injunction appears to be tailoring it to individual gang members who engage in certain activity in specific areas to avoid defense attorney challenges on constitutional grounds. Early on, gang civil injunctions raised concerns of violating constitutional rights of free expression, right to assemble and right to due process.
Criminal defense attorney David Raybin said traditionally, civil injunctions used in public nuisance cases mainly focused on “good-time houses,” gambling and prostitution houses, and they worked well because of the clearly defined activities of gambling and prostitution.
“The problem with these so-called gang injunctions is, ‘What exactly constitutes a gang?’ ” Raybin said.
Gangs are typically loose organizations, and while several individuals with criminal histories might be working together, it still must be proven that they are, in fact, operating as a gang.
“I think [Metro officials] realize that these [injunctions] are highly susceptible to attack, and what they’re trying to do is create one that is, in their view, indisputably all within a narrow concept,” Raybin said. “If they do that it could have a profound effect on the gang.”
In Fresno County, Calif., Chief Deputy District Attorney Greg Anderson said law enforcement validates, or verifies, that those to be named in a gang civil injunction are known gang members before the injunction is filed in court. Once it’s in place, authorities ensure gangsters are served with the injunctions,
putting them on notice.
In Tennessee, gangsters who violate the injunction would face a misdemeanor charge in court, where prosecutors would have to prove that the gang members knew of the injunction — what they weren’t supposed to do and where they weren’t supposed to do it.
The “where” is key. Civil injunctions against gangs list “safety zones” — small neighborhood areas where there is definite gang activity. In those places, enjoined gang members (or those served with the injunction) wouldn’t be allowed to engage in certain activities, such as associating with other known and enjoined gang members, that might normally be taken for granted as a right.
In Nashville, those safety zones might be more difficult to define. Where in some larger cities, certain sections of blocks in town are known as gang areas, gangsters in Music City might live on one side of town but conduct business on another, according to Howey.
The success of a civil injunction against gang members could hinge on how it’s presented to the communities affected.
“The whole thing on these [injunctions] is community buy-in,” Anderson said. “That everybody in the community understands what you’re doing and the community that it affects … wants it to happen.”
It’ll be up to the Metro Department of Law to file an injunction when it’s ready. Metro attorney Kathy Evans, who worked to craft the 2009 state statute, would not comment on Metro’s work to write its own gang civil injunction.
According to Anderson, if it’s done right, it could lead to significant crime reductions in the safety zones. This week he’s off to Memphis to answer questions from law enforcement and attorneys regarding a possible push to implement an injunction program there.