How Oxnard deals with street gangs

By George Miller, July 14, 2014

Oxnard logo

 

Editor’s note: This article was published 4 years ago. It is being re-released now because of all the discussion since enforcement was suspended and a modified version is to be considered after public meetings. Read about the discussion at the 7-17-18 Council meeting. Also read Armando Vazquez’s injunction opposition article.

1. Background/Situation

Years ago, there was a major gang problem in certain sections of Oxnard, a sprawling agricultural, industrial and commercial seaside working class city of over 200,000 people. About 60 miles up the coast from Los Angeles, it is considered the poor relation of Ventura County, while its largest city. It has the second lowest per capita income and high crime by County standards. Violence- murders, assaults, robbery, burglary, intimidation worsened as urban gangs from Los Angeles, Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere, but mostly homegrown, took root.  Many illegal immigrant felons were present. A hard-core crime, drugs and prison subculture permeated the community’s underworld. When it became intolerable to the public, they demanded action and government responded, not only with police enforcement, but legal strategies and social programs. Oxnard scored one of the early successes with “gang member injunctions,” a legal strategy which imposed a curfew and physical boundaries, enforced with stiff penalties, for those identified, documented and served after court orders were obtained on each of hundreds of hard core gang members.

What is a “gang?” For purposes of this article (and California law) it is:

From Penal code 186.22
(f) As used in this chapter, "criminal street gang" means any
ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons,
whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities
the commission of one or more of the criminal acts enumerated in
paragraphs (1) to (25), inclusive, or (31) to (33), inclusive, of
subdivision (e), having a common name or common identifying sign or
symbol, and whose members individually or collectively engage in or
have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity.

.

Eventually a community under siege was turned around, crime dropped and people felt safer on the streets. Oxnard is now considered a very livable community (with a few exceptions) which is attracting more people and business. The City’s reputation and actual conditions improved, but some of the stigma lived on. Many identified gang problems evaporated, due to member incarceration, their move out of  the area, deaths, or some members becoming inactive and documented as so. To date, only two have been added to the injunction list this year. Many citizens didn’t even realize that the injunction strategy was still in play.

However, in recent years, several factors have caused some regression of the situation and much alarm, which is eliciting a strong reaction. Late last year, Oxnard Police Chief Jeri Williams noted a disturbing increase in crime (16%) and could not immediately pinpoint the causes. More recently, she linked it at least in part to realignment (the massive releases of felons from state prisons). Unfortunately, several adverse things were occurring:

– Massive budget/overcrowding-related releases of state prisoners, many of whom bring their gang affiliations/orientation home with them.

– Many thousands of illegal immigrant felons released by federal orders

– The toll of the lengthy recession/unemployment

–  An influx of undesirable outsiders

– There are an estimated 140 hard core, repeat, career criminals in town

In addition, we were told, gang members are learning to avoid displaying the legal criteria of gang member identification and resulting eligibility for injunction. City officials are concerned about gang crime and are urging action to correct the situation. But, we’re seeing things like THIS or much worse constantly.

 A very knowledgeable source in the Ventura County DA’s office told CJ the following about the injunctions:  They don’t agree about the recession as a cause of the crime surge, since it has been going on much longer than the surge. “It’s (the injunctions) a lot cheaper than homicide investigations.” (Paraphrased): “How many homicides have been prevented? … Going back a decade, many people in Oxnard remember … how many children are now growing up in a community without groups of 20-30 gang members on street corners, dressed in gang clothes, making gang signs, yelling at people, intimidating them ….? If you take away the injunctions, they’ll be back on the street corners…. Once the injunction was served, it almost ceased, stopped…. People think it’s fixed, but they need to avoid being complacent now that huge improvements have been made.”

Assistant Chief Scott Whitney wrote: “I do agree with the comments from the DA’s Office. The two injunctions definitely limit the ability of the gangs to loiter in public places and intimidate their neighborhoods. Nor are the gang members able to intimidate others by wearing their gang clothing. Those are intangibles that are not as easily measured by crime stats.”

2. Strategy, Approach

At the June 10th Oxnard City Council meeting, Oxnard Police Department (OPD) Chief Jeri Williams said that there is a “three pronged strategy” for dealing with gang crime problems which encompasses prevention, intervention and enforcement.  Regular patrols, special operations, public partnerships, prosecution, intelligence activities and social programs are the substance of the approach. 

Oxnard has taken advantage of the state’s tough anti-gang statutes. Via OPD and the DA’s office, it filed injunctions affecting 347 gang members in two gangs, restricting activities and where they can be conducted. Gang injunctions are far from the only tools available to the police, but are among the most effective.  The police obviously focus on the law enforcement activities, but are also involved in some of the social programs and work with the schools, clubs and other programs, mostly on their own time.  Programs such as Oxnard and Ventura County’s “Community Alliance for Safety,” focused on prevention and intervention, but also cooperating with enforcement, are administered locally by Grace Magistrale Hoffman, Deputy City Manager.

 oxnard.police.43. Oxnard Police Department resources, approach

The department has 254 authorized officer positions (high vacancy)  and 150 civilian employees, under Chief Jeri Williams, who has been with the department about three years. The police department uses about 45% of the general fund expenditures. At a ratio of a bit over one officer per thousand residents, OPD is thinly manned compared to a lot of departments. When asked if they had enough funding, we were told that the city needs to allocate resources as best as it can with a tight budget, that they are satisfied with the rationale for resource allocation and they are prepared to work with what they have.

It is divided up into the following sections:

Field Services Bureau- Patrol Patrol Services and Special Operations

– Investigative Services Bureau- Detectives: Narcotics, Violent Crimes, Major Crimes, Family Protection/Property Crimes

– Administrative Services Bureau- Standards, Special Services, Training, Internal Affairs

Assistant Chief, Field Services Bureau, R. Jason Benites, has the overall responsibility for dealing with gang activity. Much of this responsibility falls under the SWAT Teams (called the “Special Enforcement Unit” (SEU) – in fact it is their primary mission. There are two squads, each consisting of one Sergeant, one Senior Police Officer, and eight Police Officers, for a total of 20 sworn officers, reporting to Commander, Special Operations Division Eric Sonstegard, who has held that position for the last 3 1/2 years. SEU is on duty 7 days a week, addresses persons involved in violence, provides tactical  support, assistance and training to Patrol forces. Just to provide a few key statistics: in 2012, SEU made 619 arrests, 425 probation/parole searches, 22 firearms recovered, 32 moderate and high risk warrant searches, 43 tactical assists to the Patrol Division and 25 days of officer training. The SEU is in addition to existing area police patrols which also deal with gang activity, but hand it over to SEU if there is a heightened safety risk and/or a long-term problem..

WhitneyPOAVC_Memorial_2014

Assistant Chief Scott Whitney

Citizensjournal.us met with Assistant Chief Scott Whitney and Sonstegard recently to get a general orientation on the situation and what was/is/will be done about it, as follows:

Gangs have been in the region for generations. The vast majority are homegrown. The largest and worst was the Colonia Chiques, so they received the most attention. The South Side Chiques are also described as a significant problem. The city used, and still uses, the approach that the Los Angeles Police Department employed in certain communities to  develop its own gang injunction strategy and documents. The department works with legal resources of the Ventura County District Attorney’s office to do this.

Oxnard Police Department (OPD) told CJ that there are approximately 1800 gang members believed to meet the definitions contained in this article. There are about 347 gang members in the two injunctions outstanding. Only two new members have been approved this year, with about 28 more in the pipeline as of 6/2/14. Numerous ones were previously terminated when people were no longer believed to meet the criteria.  The criteria to support injunction are fairly stringent, due to legal hurdles. Researching, collecting and documenting that information is difficult and time-consuming.

The first Oxnard gang injunction was issued in 2005, containing the prohibitions mentioned in the applicable California Penal Code 186.22, Section (e).  It took about a year to assemble.  Due to legal challenges drawing upon civil rights laws, they had to “start over,” re-drafting and re-serving all injunctions in 2008. The City and Ventura County District attorney’s office take great care to balance civil rights of alleged gang members against public safety concerns. No one is added to the injunction list who isn’t proven to meet the criminal gang member criteria.

The first injunctions banned certain activities, affiliations and prohibitions addressed an approximately 6.8 square mile “safety zone,” which is depicted in the referenced MAP.

OPD has worked on gang task forces with the FBI and other jurisdictions. The resources and wider area of operation allow them to share resources, information and go after larger criminal organizations more widely dispersed. State and Federal funding may support these projects.

It’s sometimes possible to be there and act when crimes are being committed, but OPD doesn’t have the manpower and coverage to be omnipresent. In fact the department has significantly fewer officers per capita than most big cities.  But the police patrol, looking for warning signs or perpetrators actually in the act, as well as respond to crime reports, tips, undercover information and various other intelligence activities.

Undercover informants and the public have been, at times, been quite helpful and are encouraged. However, they are often reluctant to do so because of family and neighborhood ties or may feel intimidated. Even victims won’t cooperate 75% of the time. Policy protects illegal immigrants from action on immigration status when reporting crime information. Confidential anonymous tips are enabled via a crime tip hotline (805) 486-8362, or 911 for emergencies.

When asked, Commander Sonstegard made a point of saying that SEU hardly ever performs armored car assaults and that he could only remember a couple of such instances. He said they are more “cerebral,” focusing on ways to get things done non-violently, via calling, negotiation, smart thinking, where possible.

Gang members

Gang members tend to start as young as 13-14 years old, with maximum activity being in the 19-22 year old age range, which is said to apply to  85-88% of active members. . Nearly all gang members are young males. Some outgrow it, others are sent to prison, are seriously injured or killed, decide it doesn’t pay, or no longer have the physical ability to pursue it. The Mexican mafia members, especially leadership, tend to be older.

OPD said that gang members use drugs to buy guns and for their own personal use. Much of the supply comes from Mexican drug cartels which are more formally organized and disciplined than the local gangs. Many gang members have been in prison and tend to bring back their prison gang affiliations and behaviors. Prison gangs tend to be race-oriented- Latino, Black, White “skinhead,” etc.  Those and the Mexican mafia have an influence on street gangs.

eric sonstegard - oxpd

Commander Eric Sonstegard and other OPD’ers participate in various social programs designed to help Oxnard youth

There is a very hard core of about 140 habitual, repeat criminals in town (not all are gang members). Many have mental illnesses, and/or emotional problems, substance abuse, poor social skills. Many are illiterate. Some are homeless. OPD described situations with 5-6 or more arrests of some of these people, who then go through the revolving door of “justice,” often being released because prosecution is declined, prisons have no room, etc. This is a very frustrating situation and is leading to a higher incidence of crime. It has gotten significantly worse since state and federal prisoners are being released en masse, due to overcrowding, court orders and even social policies.

Rehabilitation and social programs

OPD says a majority of the estimated 1800 gang members in town are “dysfunctional,” having various disabilities making it very hard to integrate them into normal living. When asked about rehabilitation, we were told that there is about a very high recidivism rate for convicts. They were not optimistic about rehabilitation for most of these, but felt that younger ones and these not too deeply involved might be turned early.

The relevant social programs are aimed at prevention. Some of the job training programs have been successful in helping people to lead more productive lives. A state-funded program called “Operation Peaceworks” is said to have helped mitigate crime.  The gang-involved youth were offered intensive counseling, academic assistance, employment skills training and paid employment opportunities in Oxnard’s City Corps- MORE. There’s also the aforementioned “Community Alliance for Safety.” There’s also DRAGG, GREAT, GVS and more. We were told that some of the programs have exhausted their funding.

The CET- Center for Employment Training branch in Oxnard normally avoids hard core criminals, but has had some success with what they believed to be salvageable young people who have taken a wrong turn, according to two veteran facility instructors interviewed by Citizensjournal.us. One of them proudly pointed out a young man on probation to us and said that he has found purpose and hope in the four-five month construction trades training program, which turns out graduates ready to hit the ground running on the job with readily marketable skills.

Police, officials, teachers and social service organizations all seem to agree that the key is the parents, family structure and community. All of these are less than optimal in some quarters. Youths are at a huge disadvantage when the families themselves are already dysfunctional. While government attempts to buttress them externally, an educator said at a recent meeting of educators and government: “It doesn’t take a village, it takes the parents.”

 

4. CAPenalCodeApplicable Law

The California legislature was made aware of the extent of gang problems in multiple areas of the state and passed some tough legislation which puts powerful tools into the hands of police departments to deal with intractable problems. Statutes passed provide significantly harsher penalties for offenses committed as part of gang activities than for individual offenses, because of the greater impact on society and increased difficulty of dealing with large organizations intent on inflicting harm in communities. Among these were gang injunctions and accompanying penalties for gang-related activities.

Gang injunction is far from the only tool available to the police, but it is one of the most effective.

  • California Penal Code Section 186.22
    (a) Any person who actively participates in any criminal street gang with knowledge that its members engage in or have engaged in a pattern of… (click above to read more)

 

5. Colonia Chiques Gang Injunction

This is a summary provided to CJ by OPD:

– California Supreme Court approved the use of gang injunctions to abate the public nuisance cause by street gangs and their members.

– It is a civil lawsuit against the gang and its members based on the legal theory of public nuisance.

– Colonia Chiques is the largest and most violent street gang in Ventura County.

– The gang participates in robberies, assaults, vandalism, drug sales, drive-by shootings and homicides.

– Applies only to gang members served with the injunction: and in a defined area of the city designated as a “safety zone” (6.6 square miles) [Editor’s note: Here is an older MAP showing the boundaries of the Colonia Chiques gang injunction zone.]

– The trial court concluded that “our system of justice must not let the bullies and predators in our society, using the armor of Constitutional protection, to have the free range to victimize the innocent, terrorize our communities and threaten public safety.”

– Injunction filed on June 1, 2005. Permanently enjoins Colonia Chiques gang and it’s (SIC) active members from engaging in the following activities in the safety zone:

– Intimidating witnesses, associating with other Colonia gang members, possessing guns or other dangerous weapons, engaging in fighting, using gang gestures, wearing gang clothing, possessing controlled substances without a prescription, possessing an open container of an alcoholic beverage anywhere in public view or accessible to the public, possessing graffiti tools, trespassing on any real property not open to the public, being “outside” between 10 pm and sunrise, acting as a lookout to warn of the presence of law enforcement and failing to obey all laws.

– On October 15, 2007, the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District issues an opinion holding that the curfew provision was unconstitutionally vague, but otherwise affirmed the judgment.

– On May 19, 2008, the District Attorney obtained an amended, permanent injunction with new language addressing the curfew provision.

 

6. Case law

Colonia Chiques Case Underscores Need For Specificity in Regulations, Injunctions

PEOPLE TOTTEN v. COLONIA CHIQUES

Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 6, California.

The PEOPLE ex rel Gregory D. TOTTEN, as the District Attorney for the County of Ventura, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. COLONIA CHIQUES, an Unincorporated Association, et al., Defendants. Gabriel Acosta and Beatriz Orozco, Interveners and Appellants.

No. B184772.

Decided: October 15, 2007

http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ca-court-of-appeal/1089259.html

_____________________________________________________________________

 

Injunction2nd

current injunction:    https://www.oxnardpd.org/documents/injunctions/COCH_injunction.pdf

 

read MORE

7. Some relevant police activities/publications

OPD on gang injunctions

Applicable Community Programs

Gang Awareness Presentations
Several programs are in place to help steer at youth risk away from the gang life, and have had a positive impact on hundreds of children in the community.

Oxnard Graffiti Task Force

Neighborhood Watch
The City of Oxnard has some very active Neighborhood Watch (also known as “Citizen Patrol”) groups. Learn which patrols are where and how to get in touch with the chairpersons on this page.

Reporting suspicious activity: https://www.oxnardpd.org/takeaction/reportemergency.asp

Numbers to callhttps://www.oxnardpd.org/contact.asp

You can always report anonymously by calling our crime tip hotline (805) 486-8362

End Gang Violence
Information for parents, community members and service providers on ending gang violence

A previous statement by Chief Williams on gangs:

I would pray that street gangs would become the modern day dinosaurs and become extinct. For that to happen, our society is going to have to do some fundamental changing and address the root causes that result in young people being attracted to the gang environment. Issues of proper parenting, education, health care all contribute to the success of a young person in our society. We are committed to work with our partners in the community and in our justice system in prevention and early intervention strategies, however we also taken an oath to uphold the laws of our community, our State and our Nation. We have made progress and “together” we will continue to make progress and work toward the “extinction” of street gangs. SOURCE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Crime statistics

OPDstats 001

OPDstats 003

 

 

 

Numbers unfortunately are again headed up.

 

Previous CJ story on Oxnard Gangs

 

Please provide us feedback and let us know if you want a follow-up article.

Originally published 7-2-14

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George Miller is Publisher of Citizensjournal.us and a “retired” operations management consultant, active in civic affairs, living in Oxnard.

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3 Responses to How Oxnard deals with street gangs

  1. William Hicks July 21, 2018 at 9:26 am

    Anything positive changed since Chief Williams previous comments?

    Reply
    • Citizen Reporter July 21, 2018 at 12:24 pm

      The Council, led by Flynn pushed it, police dept responded. But, now, with the city dropping it under threat, not so good.

      Reply
      • William Hicks July 22, 2018 at 12:41 am

        what will it take to take identity politics out of this city?

        Reply

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