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San Diego County’s Gang Injunctions Are Gone, But Neighborhood Scars Remain

Travis Smith visits his grandmother's house on J Street for the first time in...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: Travis Smith visits his grandmother's house on J Street for the first time in over a decade. May 6, 2021.

Listen to this story by Cristina Kim.

Travis Smith hadn’t been to his grandmother’s house on J street in Southeast San Diego in over a decade. He’d driven by a few times but never could bring himself to actually stop.

But this time he did. And it looks different.

The garage has been converted into additional living space and there’s a shiny black gate around the house. As Smith walks up the street towards the newly painted blue house, he’s overwhelmed by memories.

“This is my daddy's house when he was a kid,” he said. “So definitely, you know, through the generations, this is home. It's always going to be home.”

For 13 years, Smith couldn’t go home. In 2006 his name was placed on a gang injunction, a court-ordered restraining order that restricted the movements and actions of alleged gang members to curb their activities. His grandmother’s house was a restricted “target area” or red zone.

Back when his name was placed on the gang injunction, Smith was a West Coast Crip. He says he wasn’t a particularly active member — joining a gang was just something young men in his neighborhood did.

But Smith did have a record. He’d been convicted on charges of drug possession and sales, and also had a gun possession conviction. However, those charges had come years before the gang injunction and he’d completed his probation.

Photo caption:

Map of Target Areas I and II for West Coast Crip Defendants. Image from the Superior Court of California, County of San Diego Permanent Injunction Court Document.

Smith remembers being confused when two officers from the San Diego Police Department’s gang unit showed up at his home and told him his name was on the injunction. Suddenly, all the places he knew as home were off-limits to him.

“How am I not going to go to this store that I’ve been going to for 20 some years? How am I not going to go to this park that I’ve been hanging out at?” he recalls thinking. “How?”

At one point, Smith was arrested right in front of his grandmother’s house for breaking the injunction. He remembers her running out to the yard yelling for the police to leave him alone.

A painful tactic

The history of gang injunctions can be traced back to early 1980s Los Angeles when gang violence was at a high point. They became a popular tool for law enforcement agencies, especially in Southern California. The theory behind the injunctions is that gangs are a public nuisance — and if law enforcement made it extremely difficult for gang members to congregate or live in a community, they’d eventually go away and the community would be better off.

But in practice, the injunctions further alienated and segregated low-income communities that were already over-policed.

Looking back, Smith says he understands the need to end gang violence and doesn’t make excuses about the choices he made as a young man. But he says the injunction in his neighborhood did more harm than good. It hurt people like his grandmother, who passed away in 2010.

“I mean, not being able to see your grandsons when you are used to seeing your grandsons out front, barbecuing, eating macaroni and cheese, and the next thing you know, you don't see them and you're older,” Smith said. “I mean, that's the American dream, right? To get you a house and have your grandsons and your kids dwelling around. Right? Well, they took that from us."

Photo caption:

Photo by Travis Smith

Travis Smith's grandmother, Vernela Smith, in her home on J Street. Date unknown.

Many, including leaders in law enforcement, have come around to Smith’s way of thinking. Gang injunctions are increasingly becoming a thing of the past in San Diego and throughout the country.

In April, San Diego County DA Summer Stephan announced that her office was ending all of the county’s remaining gang injunctions, and in doing so removing the last 349 people from the injunction lists.

RELATED: San Diego County, Prosecutors File Petitions To Lift Civil Gang Injunctions

However, Stephan’s change of heart was a slow process. In 2019, the city’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention voted to approve a recommendation for the immediate dissolution of all gang injunctions in the county. But Stephan, who sits on the commission, voted against it. She doesn’t regret that decision.

“I still have a responsibility to the whole of the community to make sure that they're safe,” Stephan told KPBS. “So I may not act as quickly as somebody might like me to act because I have a duty to take thoughtful, considered action to make sure that I don't have collateral damage.”

Reported by Cristina Kim , Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

She says the process of methodically reviewing cases for the past few years has made it abundantly clear to her that gang injunctions are no longer effective tools.

“Injunctions that worked 10 to 20 years ago now are catching in their net folks that have been away from crime, away from the gang lifestyle for a while,” Stephan said.

“This injunction is one piece in a journey that we’ve undertaken to acknowledge that our system relied too heavily on incarceration and that there are better alternatives that look at the root causes.”

Long time in coming

Smith, whose name wasn’t removed from the injunction until 2019, said the scars from being caught in the DA’s net run deep. And when he heard that the injunction on his old neighborhood had ended, he felt both happy and frustrated that it took so long.

“It was like, wow, you know, they get it. OK, now you guys want to do that, “ Smith said. “Like, you didn't throw everything up already but thank you. You know what I mean?”

Mullens Market and Liquor store on the corner of Imperial and 30th is just a short drive away from Smith’s grandmother’s house. And even though it’s been years since he’s been in the neighborhood, people on the street recognized him and shouted hello during a recent visit.

This intersection holds good and bad memories. It’s another place where he was arrested for violating the injunction, but it’s also where he found salvation.

“Right on this same block that I went to jail on was the same block when my life changed, when God changed my life,” Smith said, pointing to a building that used to be End Times Christian Soldiers Ministries. “I became a new man and a new person in the same red zone that they said was bad.”

As he talked, two police cars drove by and one parked across the street from where Smith was standing.

Smith’s shoulders tensed up. He was convinced the officer would confront him, but instead, the officer went inside a pizza shop.

“This is the worst part, I'm not on an injunction, I'm not a part of the game,” Smith said. “And just standing right here, being in this area, you know, you see the police and you automatically think they’re coming to get you.”

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Rise Up Industries in Santee, CA. May 7, 2021.

A common story

Inez Corona is a counselor at Rise Up Industries, a nonprofit based in Santee that works exclusively with former gang members who’ve been incarcerated.

She hears experiences like what happened to Smith all the time during her therapy sessions.

“You’ve been conditioned when you have so many negative interactions that are oftentimes violent and frightening,” Corona said. “No doubt that you’re going to experience anxiety or stress related to that.”

Many of her clients are facing a history of multiple traumas. “Most of them have been exposed to violence, drug addiction, parental incarceration at a very young age, even as children. And with that comes anxiety, depression, stress, chronic stress and PTSD.”

Although therapy can sound like an individualized approach to address the impacts of being affiliated with gang life, Corona stresses that the issue is a community problem that impacts everyone.

“Investing in [former gang-affiliated people] helps facilitate their positive choices and ultimately, it's an investment in our community,” Corona said. “If we want safer communities, we have to invest in people and that means equal access and opportunities for education, employment, vocational training, healthcare and housing.”

It’s something that she and Smith agree on.

He says he wants to see those resources in his old neighborhood because now that the injunctions are all gone, the real work can begin. And he wants law enforcement agencies that created the injunctions to play a role in rebuilding the community.

“Now let's start the new journey to rehabilitating the community,” Smith said. “You've got to come back and you have to bring healing,” he says. “Come back and bring a big bag of healing.”

Smith is happy now. He credits God for changing his path and he wants others to find healing too. It’s why he ministers and even produces songs about his journey.

Before he left the neighborhood to drive the 20 miles back to his current home, Smith stopped by his grandmother’s home again. The cactus his grandmother had planted years ago is still growing strong. He thinks she would be proud of how tall it’s gotten.

A part of Smith feels back at home, but another part of him doesn’t. The neighborhood is different. He is different. After all these years he’s still undoing the years of conditioning that kept him away from his neighborhood, his family and his home.

KPBS Midday Edition Segments podcast branding

Late last month San Diego DA Summer Stephan announced that her office was dissolving the last remaining gang injunctions in San Diego County. Those were restraining orders issued by a ... Read more →

Aired: May 12, 2021 | Transcript

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Photo of Cristina Kim

Cristina Kim
Racial Justice and Social Equity Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover racial justice and social equity issues – an expansive beat that includes housing, health, criminal justice, and education. I am interested in unpacking how systems reproduce inequalities and highlighting the ways communities of color are pushing for greater equity.

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