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Laila Aziz: Gang Suppression units are a waste of money. Invest in our Black and Brown communities instead.
San Diego Union-Tribune - 8/1/2020
I spent most of my life in Southeast San Diego where walking home from school was a traumatic experience. Tuesdays and Thursdays were known as the "gang unit days." Police officers would stop us, handcuff us and line us up on the curb or a wall. Without probable cause, they would search us, take our pictures and ask us personal questions. We did not realize that they were collecting data to document and use against us as we grew up. These interactions with the gang suppression unit became a part of life. Having our constitutional rights violated became our norm.
I was also raised on a street with two police officers. I grew up with their children. One detective's son broke into our house and stole our DVD player. This was one of my first lessons in restorative justice. His 19-year-old son steered clear of trouble and was able to make amends.
As we grew up, the gang unit encounters intensified. It was not uncommon for the gang unit to molest and grab the private parts of boys and girls while "searching for contraband." If you didn't want to be bothered, you ran. There were days when a crowd of 20 of us walking home would disperse in every direction. We hid in canyons, under cars, in bushes and behind trees. We felt we were fighting back. We felt like runaway slaves. It was terrifying.
The gang suppression unit, which still operates in San Diego, doesn't stop crime. It surveils, tracks and documents. We were victimized so that the members of that unit could collect data.
Later, I started to question the design of the entire system. Working in the nonprofit sector, I witnessed gang officers lie, plant evidence and beat community members. In 2014, 33 Black men were arrested and charged with an obscure section of the California Penal Code related to gangs, 182.5. Many of them took plea deals. Years later, it was revealed in court that San Diego gang Detectives Rudy Castro and Scott Henderson lied and omitted information — what a judge called a "substantial showing of either intentional or reckless deception" — on an arrest warrant that led to those charges.
Gang documentation is the latest in an evolution of Jim Crow legislation, which targets and punishes Black and Brown communities. In order to be labeled a "gang" a community must have two or more instances of specific crimes in that area. These seemingly arbitrary crimes include drug sales, stealing a credit card or using someone's identification. If there are two drug sales convictions in a community, the criminal justice system can call a group of young people in that community a gang. Where and how gangs are labeled, however, is steeped in bias. Areas such as La Jolla have high drug sales and drug usage, but there is no criminalization of their youth. These practices have been so institutionalized that no one questions why Black and Brown people are serving much longer sentences for the same underlying felony as their White counterparts. The role of gang documentation in these racial discrepancies is clear.
Gang policing and gang laws have nothing to do with empirical research. Most youth are only active in these "organizations" for one or two years. Neuroscience research regarding decision-making has proven that young men's frontal lobes are not fully developed until they are at least 24 years old. This is taken for granted by law enforcement when dealing with White youth. Young Black and Brown kids, on the other hand, are targeted as villainous "superpredators." We need to treat Black and Brown boys the same as their White counterparts and we need to fund community programs that focus on intervening in their lives before violence occurs.
Gang Details, Gang Suppression units, or the new term — "Special Operations Units" — are a waste of money and resources. In 2020, the city of San Diego budgeted almost $9 million to the gang unit. As violence decreases, their budget continues to grow. Simultaneously, we see funding to prevent youth violence continue to decrease. These units must be defunded and that $9 million should be invested into community programs that operate autonomously from law enforcement. Reallocate this money to pay youth outreach workers a livable wage, provide summer and school break internship programs, counselors, trauma-informed care, mentoring, conflict resolution and STEM programs. If we want safe communities, we must support community-led programs that utilize transformative justice to not only address harm, but to eliminate the causes of harm. Perhaps then we can begin to heal.
Aziz is the director of operations at the Pillars of the Community organization. She lives in Encanto.
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