Oxnard Police Comments on Gang Injunctions

By Lori Denman

It was estimated in a report by the City of Oxnard Police that there are 2,400 gang members in their city.

In an effort to reduce crime and increase safety, Oxnard established its first gang injunction in 2005. A brief explanation of Oxnard’s gang history and gang injunctions was completed in a past story in Citizens Journal. Gang injunctions in Oxnard have been suspended, due to legal issues.

Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Eric S. Sonstegard told Citizens Journal this week, “We (Oxnard Police Department) have opted to suspend enforcing them until we resolve a legal aspect pertaining to due process.”

There are upcoming community meetings in August with Sonstegard and other Oxnard Police Department members. Sonstegard said, “We plan to have discussions with our community in various forums. We are also watching the direction of some court cases, whose outcome may have some influence upon what steps come next.”

There are supporters and opponents to gang injunctions. One strong opponent is Armando Vazquez, founding member of CORE, Chiques Organizing for Rights & Equality. He wrote an article about gang injunctions and why he and others oppose them, stating that they are unjust. Sonstegard commented on many sections of Vasquez’s article in this interview.

The following section is an interview with Sonstegard.

Citizens Journal: Why were gang injunctions invented in the first place?

Eric S. Sonstegard: Generally speaking, injunctions are civil actions against gang members, or in Oxnard’s case, the gangs themselves.  They were developed to provide law enforcement with a tool to address gang-related behaviors (commonly referred to as “public nuisances”)  that negatively impacted the surrounding community.  Gang injunctions are one tool that address behaviors that contribute to gang activity.

If it was because the courts weren’t doing “enough” to protect citizens… what were the courts not doing?

We didn’t say the courts weren’t doing enough.

When did Oxnard/ VC start using injunctions?

Oxnard established its first gang injunction in 2005.

Assistant Chief Benites told me that the gang injunctions are on hold with city council… yes?

Yes, enforcement of the injunctions is “on hold.”  This does not mean that either of the two injunctions have been nullified.  It means that we have opted to suspend enforcing them until we resolve a legal aspect pertaining to due process.

Why are they “on hold”?

The Oxnard Police Department has been making every effort of keeping abreast of case law / legal decisions related to gang injunctions (See Vasquez v. Rackauckas and People v. Sanchez). One issue that has arisen concerns a “due process” matter in which persons who are served and placed onto an injunction (“enjoined”) should be entitled to contest their alleged gang membership.  About a year ago, the Oxnard Police Department added a similar component, and it was our intention to expand this component into a robust process that would ensure that due process was afforded to them.  Until this component is in place, we decided to suspend enforcement.

What is happening with the injunctions if they are on hold?

At this point, the Oxnard Police Department has suspended enforcing the two injunctions until the matter at hand is resolved.  This also means that we have suspended the effort of serving and enjoining additional persons to the injunctions.

Benites also mentioned that there are “meetings with the community on gang injunctions coming up” … can you elaborate on this? What will be talked about?

In the coming weeks, we plan to appear and speak at community meetings, such as the Oxnard’s Community Relations Commission August meeting, as well as the Inter-Neighborhood Council Organization (INCO), among others.  The purpose of our participation at these meetings is to provide facts about our gang injunctions, as well as listen to community input on them.

Is the PD going to listen to the community and try to make changes to the gang injunction protocol?

We will listen to what the community has to say.  We must also give weight to the veracity of what is said. We also realize that the balance between persons who support injunctions and those who oppose them will likely be off center.  We’ve seen that some people who oppose them are very passionate about them.  In fact, we’re seeing the same people who opposed the gang injunctions in 2004 coming back to speak again.  Compare this to the average resident that quietly supports them, but does not have the same degree of feelings about them.  Also, some residents are fearful of publicly speaking out in favor of the injunctions. Some fear retaliation from gang members. Because of this, it is reasonable to expect that the composition of the audience will likely be one-sided.

If the last update of the injunction was to overcome alleged illegal/unconstitutional aspects of the injunctions, why are you again suspending them? What changed?

In response to the 2013 Vasquez v. Rackauckas case, the Oxnard Police Department mailed a “Notice of Your Right to Contest Applicability of Gang Injunction” form to all enjoined individuals. This would allow individuals to have a court hearing to contest their gang determination. Only three (3) individuals responded and elected to have a hearing. The 2017 decision in People v. Sanchez further defined the due process issue and we felt it was prudent to suspend enforcement until more information was available.

Are you comfortable with the concept of the injunctions? Are they constitutional?

I remember what some of our neighborhoods used to be like before the gang injunctions. Families were afraid to allow their kids to go to local parks because groups of 10-20 gang members would be hanging out there. We would routinely stop vehicles with four or five gang members driving around with no particular destination. We’d see groups of gang members just standing around on a street corner. The gang members themselves would often times become victims of violent crimes because they were so visible. I’m much more comfortable with how our neighborhoods are in 2018.

Also, Gang injunctions are court orders signed by a superior court judge. They have time and time again been upheld as constitutional.

Have certain types of crime risen since the injunction suspension? Can you show any correlation or even cause and effect to this?

Overall Part One crime is down 6.2% in 2018 compared to the same time period in 2017. Violent crime is down 6.1%. The gang injunctions directly impact such a small portion of the city’s population (less than 0.3%) that its difficult to draw any correlation to current crime trends.

What is your opponents’ legal basis, if any?

We don’t have “opponents”. We’re going to work with the community to do what’s best for Oxnard.

What is PD/City’s course of action, next steps?

As we mentioned, we plan to have discussions with our community in various forums.  We are also watching the direction of some court cases, whose outcome may have some influence upon what steps come next.

Will you respond to Armando Vazquez article? Vazquez is a founding member of CORE, Chiques Organizing for Rights & Equality. In this article, he claims that, “the fact that civil injunctions, in most instances have proven to be a dismal three-decade long law enforcement failure in reducing gang-related crime.” What is your response?

We disagree. Two particular scholarly articles also disagree with Armando as well:

  1. https://www.academia.edu/970697/Evaluation_of_the_Effectiveness_of_Gang_Injunctions_in_California
  2. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41887-017-0015-x

Opponents said people can be put on injunction list just for tattoos or clothing. PD says it’s not true. Have opponents cited any evidence to support their positions?

Since the injunctions began, we have not been made aware of a single example of a person being placed on either of Oxnard’s injunctions on the sole basis of clothing choices or tattoos. This type of misinformation is being circulated, and is something that has been circulating since even before our injunctions began.  It is either based from not knowing the facts, or deliberately spreading misinformation to dissuade community support for the injunctions.

The ACLU claims that instead of injunctions, gang members should be given the opportunity for social service programs, gang intervention, and job training.” Do you think this is being done in Oxnard already?

Yes. Please visit these sites: www.endgangviolence.org and http://www.bscc.ca.gov/downloads/Oxnard%20CalGRIP%20Final%20Evaluation%20Report.pdf

Opponents also say that injunctions are a “rationale for racial profiling and criminalizing young people of color.” Your thoughts?

This is their viewpoint and opinion, and they are entitled to that.  Their statements could also be viewed as a means to undermine and mischaracterize injunctions that make great efforts to be managed responsibly, conservatively, and make efforts to respect the rights of others.

Opponents also say, “Gang injunctions are civil court orders that “ allow police to arrest a person using a lower legal standard than required by the criminal justice system.”  Why are these people saying “lower legal standard”?

I can’t speak for those individuals, but I presume they’re referring to the fact an enjoined gang member can be arrested for violation of a court order for doing something (e.g. open container of alcohol, wearing gang attire) that someone not enjoined to the injunction would not be arrested for. If that is the case, it is important to note that they have been ordered by the court to refrain from those behaviors, and their doing otherwise becomes a violation of a court order – a misdemeanor.  A crime. In such cases, the state’s prosecution must still prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  If this is what the “opponents” are referring to, their position statement is factually incorrect.

One site (https://www.prisonerswithchildren.org/gang-injunctions/) claims, “Because these injunctions are filed in civil court, defendants do not have the right to a state-appointed attorney. Virtually none of them have the resources to hire private lawyers.” Is this true?

This is not correct.  The Ventura County Public Defender’s Office has been involved in litigation related to Oxnard’s gang injunctions since they were first implemented.  Those persons who violate Oxnard’s injunction are charged with a criminal count of violating a court order, and are entitled to representation.

Also, of note, incorrect, misleading, or even patently false information about Oxnard’s injunctions is circulated. Also, remember that the framework, practices, and operations of injunctions can vary between one jurisdiction and another – what may apply in one place might not at another. Overall, Oxnard manages its injunctions very conservatively, and responsibly.  We believe that anyone that is subject to an injunction should be entitled to fair treatment, representation, and due process.

It has also been said on some opponents websites, “Gang injunctions make otherwise legal, everyday activities —like riding the bus with a friend or picking a spouse up from work late at night—illegal for people they target.” Then they are given a curfew and can’t see friends/family…is this true?

If you are an enjoined gang member and you’re knowingly with another enjoined gang member, yes, you can be arrested for an injunction violation. If you’re picking up your spouse from work after 10 p.m., our officers have discretion as to how they might handle that situation if the individual was contacted. I’ve never heard of an individual being arrested under those circumstances.

Are they given a curfew and why?

The curfew section in the injunction reads as follows: “Loitering or remaining up on public property, a public place, on the premises of any establishment, or on a vacant lot, between the hours of 10 p.m. on any day and 6 a.m. the following day. A public place is defined as any place to which the public has access, including but not limited to sidewalks, alleys, streets, highway, parks, the common areas of schools, hospitals, office buildings and transport facilities. Establishment is defined as a restaurant, bar, nightclub, shop, or other privately owned place of business operated for profit to which the public is invited. This provision shall not apply to the following including going directly to and from such activity; (1) a meeting or schedule entertainment activity at a theater, school, church or other religious institution, or sponsored by religious institution, local education authority or governmental agency; (2) actively engaging in a business, trade, profession or employment which requires such a presence; (3) in a legitimate emergency situation, defined as a fire, natural disaster, vehicle accident, or other unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for the immediate action to prevent serious bodily injury or loss of life; (4) or in the side yard or backyard of their own residence.”

When a person is entered under a gang injunction, is this person referred to as “John Doe,” not given/ booked under their real name? then, “Being labeled as a “gang” member and included in CalGang (the California statewide gang database, from which there is no exit) transfers into the state prison system as well. Being validated as “gang-affiliated” means any small infraction of prison rules will lead to indefinite and long-term isolation conditions of solitary confinement.”?

No, an individual is arrested under his/her real name. The Oxnard Police Department does not participate with the “CalGang” database referred to above.

For those persons who believe that gang injunctions are racist, what assuring advice/words do you have for them?

Gang injunctions are meant to quell public nuisance activity caused by gang members. This activity often leads to gang members being victims or suspects of violent crime.

(From Armando article too ) – “In the city of Oxnard the Oxnard Police Department decided to stop enforcing injunctions conditions and stipulations against 368 suspected gang members in late 2017 or early 2018.”? True?

Yes

“CORE and it supporters argued from the beginning in 2004 that the proposed Oxnard Civil Gang Injunction has serious constitutional flaws.  The original version did not have an ‘opt-out’ clause, which meant, simply, that OPD cops could “tag” a youth a gang member and that illegal branding of the youth followed him to his grave, he had absolutely no legal recourse to challenge his lifetime gang affiliation. “ – Armando. Yes, no?

The original gang injunctions in 2005/2006 did not have an opt-out clause. The current gang injunctions do. To date, we have removed 67 individuals from the two injunctions.

Are there also white supremacist gangs in Oxnard?

No.

What top problematic gangs are in Oxnard?

Colonia Chiques and Southside Chiques remain the two largest street gangs but there are several other gangs/crews that are involved in criminal activity in Oxnard.

Any comment on the gangs merging with MS-13?

There is very little MS-13 influence in Oxnard. I wouldn’t feel comfortable commenting on the topic as we do not have any expertise as it relates to MS-13.

What are the top problems these gangs are doing/causing in Ventura County?

Gang members are involved in all levels of criminal activity. Oxnard has experienced nine (9) homicides in 2018 and seven (7) of them were gang-related in some manner.

Do the gangs have a “repeat offender program,” and their own court system like the homeless vagrants, the homeless court?

Gang members are prosecuted by the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office. They have deputy district attorneys that specialize in gang prosecutions but there is no specific “court system” set up for gang members.

A speaker at Oxnard City Council said about the gang injunctions, “We’re told it is an effective tool, no proof.” Comment? What proof is there?

Measuring the effectiveness of any tool used to address gang violence is always difficult. There are many different factors that impact gang-related crime. 2001-2005 were particularly violent years within the city of Oxnard which precipitated the need for the gang injunctions. Upon the implementation in 2005-2006, we saw a decrease in violent crime throughout the city. Over the next 10-12 years, crime overall has ebbed and flowed based on a variety of factors including several legislative changes implemented in 2011-2016. Anecdotally, residents talk to us and tell us how much safer they feel in their neighborhoods than they did prior to the injunctions.

Are many under injunctions on parole or have warrants?

Approximately 180 of the enjoined individuals are on some form of supervised release (probation/parole). I don’t have specific figures on active warrants as that can change from day to day.

At the Oxnard City Council meeting, a person said they have family members on injunction. He said, “People can be classified as gang member by dress. Not easy to see who is a gang member. Some people wear out of local Oxnard pride. Colonia and Southside are only injunctions. But what about Lemonwood, El Rio? What is process to get out of injunction?” Comments?

An individual cannot be classified as a gang member simply for the clothes he/she wears. Also, we have an opt-out provision in both gang injunctions. Information about the opt-out provision and other items listed in the injunctions can be found at: https://www.oxnardpd.org/department-operations/field-services/investigative-services/violent-crimes/gang-investigations/gang-injunctions/colonia-chiques-injunction/

Lori Denman has been a professional journalist since 1996. She has worked as associate editor for the Los Angeles Daily News TODAY Magazines and has freelanced for LA Weekly, Surfline.com and more. She is now the Ventura reporter for Citizens Journal.


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2 Responses to Oxnard Police Comments on Gang Injunctions

  1. Miguel Espinosa August 3, 2018 at 8:38 am

    I did not read the entire report, but none of what I read made reference to the cost of the injunctions to the city of Oxnard nor the salaries of gang injunction officers or any overtime labor charges included. There was nothing referring to special uniform attire or weaponry costs. I am interesting in the profit motive of those officers involved in gang injunctions. I am also interested in the personalities of officers assigned to gang injunctions. Are they prone to racism? Do they utilize Racial Profiling or related tactics? How many times do officers accost non-gang members by mistake? What are the consequences of accosting non-gang members by mistake. Do the victims have any repercussions available to them? What alternatives to gang injunctions have been studied or tried. Are their any rehab service available to gang members who are involved in gangs “involuntarily?” How does a gang member get off the “gang” list? What is the overall budget for the gang injunction program. How is it administered?
    What is the selection process for officers who become members of gang injunction units?

    Reply
    • Citizen Reporter August 3, 2018 at 10:42 am

      We passed these questions on to our reporter covering this and to PD.Some have been addressed by our articles, already published and upcoming. We’ll ask our reporter to include these on the question lists.

      Reply

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