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The King County Council is considering two ordinances meant to stop intimidation at schools, and kick gang members off their turf, but the

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ACLU Shoots Holes in Proposed King County Gang Laws

gang-crackdown.jpg
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The King County Council is considering two ordinances meant to stop intimidation at schools, and kick gang members off their turf, but the ACLU claims the proposed laws would do more harm than good.

The two proposals are the work of council members Reagan Dunn and Kathy Lambert. The first -- ordinance 2012-0134 -- aims to "protect citizens from criminal gang intimidation through addressing a gap in Washington state law." The second -- 2012-0135 -- would establish "anti-criminal street gang emphasis areas."

Protecting citizens from intimidation and cleaning up "street gang emphasis zones" may sound like great ideas on the surface, but dig a little deeper and there are some troubling flaws with each. On Tuesday, the day both measures were under review by the Council's Justice, Health and Human Services Committee, the ACLU sent a letter to County Executive Dow Constantine and the entire nine-person council claiming the laws are unnecessary and would cause racial profiling.

The "emphasis zones" are similar to the "gang injunction" legislation that failed earlier this year at the state level. Such laws allow prosecutors to seek a court order that says a person can't visit a certain part of town, associate with other gang members, or take part in gang-related activities like tagging, getting high, and, in the extreme, wearing gang colors or symbols.

As always with draconian restrictions, it's easy to run afoul of due process and civil rights. The County's proposed ordinance, for example, doesn't even require that the "emphasis zones" be the site of gang crimes or gang activity. On top of that, according to the ACLU, "the ordinance does not require the judge to find that the defendant meets the definition of a 'gang member' or that his or her charged offense be a 'criminal street gang-related offense.'" In other words, anybody could be banned from any block for just about any reason.

"There is no simple visual way," the ACLU writes, "to make the determination of who in an area is violating a gang zone--and it is all too often made on the basis of race, ethnicity, mode of dress, or other factors that have more to do with stereotyping than effective law enforcement."

As for the ordinance that seeks to prevent gang intimidation, there are already laws on the books in Washington that outlaw "threats of bodily harm," and intimidation tactics in school. If those aren't doing the trick, a measly county ordinance probably isn't going to make much of a difference. The ACLU also notes that the proposed law, "does not require any proof that the person making the threat is actually a gang member or is attempting to force the victim to join a particular gang."

Dunn, a Republican running for state Attorney General, penned an op/ed for the Renton Reporter last month explaining that the proposals were prompted by the infamous gang shootout at the rap concert and lowrider car show in Kent last July.

"Overall these ordinances alone will not solve this crisis," he wrote. "A strong emphasis on prevention and education are two aspects of this fight that cannot be ignored. But this new legislation can provide law enforcement with valuable tools in this fight for the lives and safety of young men and women in King County."

It's doubtful, however, that the "emphasis zones" would be effective in King County. Unlike in southern California and other gang-plagued areas, local gang turf does not have firm boundaries. Gangs here tend to move from one neighborhood to another, so a piece of paper ordering them out of one area wouldn't have little or no impact. When state lawmakers were considering the injunction legislation, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told Seattle Weekly that, "the cost of seeking these [injunctions] outweighs the benefits significantly."

After the melee at the car show, both Dunn and Lambert supported drawing $1.4 million from the County's Criminal Justice Reserve fund to devote more resources to combating gang violence. Unfortunately, less than a quarter of that money was devoted to outreach/prevention/education initiatives like Nurse Family Partnership Program, which has had remarkable success keeping youths out of gangs. As the ACLU rightly states in their letter, investing in the community's overall well-being is the only way to fight gangs. The proposed ordinances, on the other hand, are nothing more than "temporary fixes that shuffle the violence around."

ACLU Letter to King County Council

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