The Fresno City Council will discuss a proposed ordinance Thursday aimed at curbing street-side harassment of passers-by by gang members, but some critics believe the law’s language is so broad that it could lead to profiling of people of color.
According to the ordinance’s wording, if a police officer believes someone is involved in gang activity, that person could be arrested if he or she is within 1,000 feet of a school or park and is “seriously annoying” to someone walking by – even if the person is standing in his or her own front yard.
The penalty? A $500 fine, up to six months in jail, or both.
Here’s how it breaks down:
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The ordinance makes it against the law for any member of a criminal street gang to “recruit, induce, solicit, intimidate or encourage” any person to participate in gang activity in any public place within 1,000 feet of a public or private school or public park.
A “public place” is defined as “any location open to the public, whether publicly or privately owned.” Public place includes “the front yard area, driveway and walkway of any private residence, business or apartment house.”
It includes a second clause that bans “harassing or intimidating any person.”
Harassing is defined as “a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that a reasonable person would consider as seriously alarming, seriously annoying, seriously tormenting or seriously terrorizing the person that serves no legitimate purpose.”
The clause covering how a gang member is identified reads: “Among the circumstances that may be considered in determining whether a person is in violation of this ordinance based upon the knowledge and personal observations of the arresting officer is whether the person is a known gang member validated through Fresno Police Department’s 10-point criteria for gang validation.”
$500 or up to six months in jailThe penalty for violating the proposed gang ordinance.
The ordinance also bans gang members from buying, selling, possessing or using any illegal drugs or weapons.
When asked about the front-yard scenario, Fresno City Councilman Sal Quintero said that was exactly the point of the ordinance.
“This is just another tool in the toolbox for law enforcement,” Quintero said.
Quintero worked with the City Attorney’s Office to write the ordinance. He said the Fresno Police Department and Fresno Unified School District also support the change.
Quintero said the ordinance grew from parent complaints in his 5th District, which covers most of southeast Fresno.
“It’s a citywide problem,” he said. “Parents worry about their son or daughter getting harassed by people across the street.”
The ordinance could be altered on the council floor, but Quintero said he expects the council to vote on its passage on Thursday.
However, some worry the ordinance would have unforeseen consequences.
Marcel Woodruff leads a community music studio out of the Youth for Christ building in the Lowell neighborhood. He works mostly with African American and Latino boys and men ages 11 to 28, some of whom have told him they’ve been singled out by Fresno police.
“This ordinance has no way to determine if someone is in a gang,” Woodruff said. “I worry about a black or brown child walking down the street, wearing the wrong colors, who yells something and now has to prove he isn’t in a gang or go to jail for six months.”
He continued: “Gang culture is so embedded in ethnic culture – it’s really impossible to tell by looking at someone if they’re in a gang. A lot of Hispanics might wear red or wear a Bulldog hat. That doesn’t mean they’re a Bulldog (gang member).”
The burden of proof is on the young man to prove he is not a gang member, not the police to prove he is.
Marcel Woodruff, youth leader in Lowell neighborhood
Woodruff said that some markers used by police to identify gang members aren’t accurate, such as forearm tattoos or clothing. These things could be cultural expressions, not declarations of gang affiliation.
He also worried about reformed gang members, who sometimes cannot afford to have their tattoos removed, being targeted because of their past.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Abre’ Conner said gang ordinances often target people of color.
“This seems to make everyday activities a crime,” Conner said. “It’s too broad. It would allow for a lot of unfair treatment in Fresno.”
Conner said that in general, gang ordinances are not effective tools for stopping crime and keeping people safe.
Los Angeles spends millions on gang suppression, Conner said, but it hasn’t worked. New York, on the other hand, has spent that same money to fund social services and seen a drastic reduction, he said.
Conner recommends the city of Fresno change its focus to social services, not police efforts.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said his staff was involved in drafting the ordinance, but he was not familiar with its exact language. He said he would review it with the City Attorney’s Office.