Metro adds gang unit members and prepares to use civil court injunctions
By Brian Haas • THE TENNESSEAN • May 31, 2010
Metro police are ready to roll out their latest weapons in the war on gangs: people and paper.
The department recently added a third team to its Gang Unit — a sergeant and six more detectives — to go after the estimated 2,500 gang members in the Nashville area. Sgt. Sandy Luther, who was one of the original detectives when the Gang Unit was created in 2004, will lead the new team.
The hope is that the extra manpower will help broaden investigations and allow them to use their second new weapon: civil court injunctions.
"You would hope that they would learn from their mistakes," Luther said.
Other Tennessee cities will watch to see whether Nashville's strategy works.
In Memphis the gang population is very spread out making geographic restrictions difficult, said Lt. Mike Shearin, head of the Memphis Police Department's Organized Crime unit.
"It's not one of the tools the Memphis Police Department has used," Shearin said. "But we'd be interested to see if it's successful in Nashville."
Last year state lawmakers approved a change to the state's public nuisance laws that were commonly used in the past to target prostitution, gambling and drunkenness. The change adds gang activity to the list of nuisances applicable to these injunctions.
"We're working on a particular case to get that going," said Lt. Gordon Howey, head of the Gang Unit. "We think it'll be a successful tool."
Howey said the new tool will allow police to ask for a judge to stop gang members from hanging out in certain areas, associating with certain people and patronizing specific businesses. Gang members who violate the injunctions could be tossed in jail.
Legal issues may arise
The restrictions imposed by the court orders make defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates uncomfortable.
"It's going to be a First Amendment issue," said Nashville defense attorney Jennifer Thompson, who also sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The right to form associations and to gather."
Thompson said she worries what standards police will have to meet to ban suspected gang members from certain areas or activities. She said the identification of gang members also could lead to racial and ethnic profiling.
"Are they just going to stop everybody who's wearing brown or who looks Hispanic? I think that's dangerous. It could lead to all kinds of misuse," she said. "If those people have already been convicted then they have more power over them. People who are not convicted and just suspected? That would be just wrong. It's clearly a violation just to say, 'You fit our profile.' "
Gang injunctions have been used successfully in California, Florida and a host of other states, where similar objections have been raised.
Law enforcement efforts to rid Fairfield, Calif., of the Norteños gang by using injunctions have been challenged this month by the American Civil Liberties Union as being unconstitutional. Injunction laws in most states have survived such challenges.
Howey had hoped to have the new team assembled and filing cases against gang members by May 1, but the May flooding put everything on hold. He said detectives are particularly interested in disrupting gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, Brown Pride and Kurdish Pride.
The hope is that the injunctions will persuade some of those gang members to stay away from areas where they have been known to cause trouble.