By Thomas Watkins
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Authorities unveiled a tough new legal tactic Wednesday aimed at reclaiming the streets of Skid Row from drug-dealing gang members who commute from afar to sell crack cocaine to some of the region's most vulnerable residents.
Under a lawsuit proposed by the city attorney's office, 80 defendants, most of them gang members or their associates, would be barred from the poverty-stricken, 50-block area on the east side of downtown.
The move is aimed at reducing rampant drug sales from gangs that don't live in the district populated by 4,000 homeless or transient people, many of whom are trying to recover from addictions.
"The single biggest criminal threat faced by the residents of this area is the open and notorious drug dealing and violence committed by hardcore gang members and career criminals who actually commute to Skid Row to do their dastardly deeds," City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said at a news conference.
His comments and those of other officials were repeatedly drowned out by about 20 protesters shouting that the area needed more housing, not tougher policing. At one point, a placard-waving man stood directly in front of officials and started yelling at them to "stop harassing the homeless."
The use of gang injunctions is common in Los Angeles, with more than 40 currently in place that typically target gathering or other activities by a single gang in one area. The legal tool is gaining popularity around the country to disrupt gangs.
Bruce Riordan, the chief of the city attorney's gang division, said the Skid Row action marked the first time an injunction was being aimed at multiple gangs. The lawsuit names members of 31 gangs and authorities said the defendants all have prior drug arrests or convictions.
Because the area is not claimed by any particular gang, members tolerate one another and even cooperate to maximize drug sales, Riordan said. By not claiming turf or fighting among themselves, they draw less attention.
"It's good for business, but the business is bad for residents," Riordan said.
If approved by a judge in the coming months, the injunction would give police officers the ability to arrest those named in the injunction if they are found on Skid Row. A defendant could be charged with a misdemeanor and face up to six months in jail.
Crime rates have fallen in recent years but drug activity on Skid Row remains a persistent problem. On any given day, crack users can be seen smoking from glass pipes, often within a block of the area's police station. Hundreds of people, many of them mentally ill, often stand around in the streets, waiting for beds or services at one of the area's missions.
Skid Row "has become a place where lawlessness, disease, littering, illegal dumping of refuse, illegal patient dumping, public defecation, violence, blatant drug use and sales are acceptable," the injunction states.
Police have compiled books with photographs and details of all those named on the injunction. Defendants could be served with notice they are on the injunction by mail or in person.
American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California attorney Peter Bibring said his organization was troubled by the injunction.
"The city attorney is trying to use the lower standards of proof in the civil context to get something he couldn't get in the criminal courts," Bibring said.
University of California, Los Angeles law professor Gary Blasi, who has spent two decades researching Skid Row, worried police might use the injunction to target people without probable cause.
"If they start driving around and stopping people because they look like people on the injunction, I would be concerned," he said.
Falling crime rates have been partly attributed to an increased police presence under the $6 million-a-year Safer City Initiative, which put 50 extra officers on the streets.
While the extra attention led to greater arrests, these were often for trivial crimes such as jaywalking or lying on the street. The arrests deepened mistrust among some residents toward the police.
Several Skid Row residents gathered Wednesday at a public park where authorities held the news conference announcing the push for the injunction. The voices of public officials were all but inaudible as protesters chanted then shouted "That's a lie!" at various remarks.
Skid Row resident Veronica Bonner said she was angry that money was being spent clamping down on drug dealers when people really needed jobs.
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"When you've got no money, you are going to come right back down to these streets," Bonner said.