Last month, on what otherwise would have been a quiet Monday afternoon, Santa Maria police officers attempted to make what probably seemed to be a routine traffic stop. Routine quickly turned dangerous, however, as the suspect vehicle sped off, resulting in a high-speed chase through the city.
Those things happen occasionally. What came next was terrifying — the men in the fleeing vehicle opened fire on officers. At least three shots were fired, as the speeding entourage rocketed along city streets.
That chase proved to be the last straw for some city residents. The Record’s sister newspaper was deluged with letters and e-mails, most of which expressed outrage at a growing gang problem that peaked with the chase/shooting incident.
We saw phrases such as “gangbangers ... getting away with terrorizing our neighborhoods for too long ...” and “... the street I live on is no longer safe.”
Those opinions are fairly representative of the responses received by the Santa Maria Times about the mid-afternoon chase, as well as other recent incidents of street violence.
Many readers suggested the city implement — and enforce — a gang injunction, similar to the one that has been in force here in Lompoc since 2005. Such court orders limit where gang members can congregate, and ban certain kinds of behaviors that tend to support gang activity.
Santa Maria Police Chief Danny Macagni was recently asked about his views on the need for and advisability of the city seeking a gang injunction.
Macagni stated rather emphatically that he does not support seeking a gang injunction because he doesn’t think one would work there, in large part because criminal groups are too spread out in the city.
He also noted that obtaining and enforcing an injunction would require more resources from the Police Department, at a time when budget issues make that next to impossible.
The chief was clear that if he thought an injunction would make a difference, he wouldn’t hesitate to pursue one.
Macagni is a veteran cop who we believe is committed to making the city’s streets as safe as possible, and his views on local law-enforcement issues need to be given serious weight.
But we wonder if a potentially valuable tool in the war against gangs is being dismissed too quickly, especially if the cost is a key factor in saying no.
Communities have no real way of knowing whether a gang injunction will work until they give it a try. And the fact that gang activity is spread over a wide area is no reason to prevent an injunction.
The city of Los Angeles has more than 40 gang injunctions, covering more than 60 separate and distinct gang areas. Our view is, if one injunction doesn’t cover the necessary territory, add another injunction, and another, until the job is done.
The chief need only to look at Lompoc’s success with its injunction, which covers a specific area in the core of the city. A Lompoc Police Department official characterizes the injunction as an “effective tool” and a “great resource.”
Similar comments can be heard from dozens of law enforcement officials in jurisdictions across California. Adding tools to a workbox never really hurts, but often can help workers get the job done quickly and efficiently.
Moreover, survey after survey shows that public safety is the top priority in most communities for how their tax dollars are spent.
Santa Maria has a fine, dedicated police force, and we’re certain the men and women who serve are working hard to combat gangs and other crime. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t new approaches that could and should be tried.
The chief may well be right that a gang injunction would not make a difference, but it is clear that a segment of the public is clamoring for some sort of change in the battle against the drugs and violence that seem to be ever present in the city.
It’s likely some people are pushing for a gang injunction without really understanding the concept, the costs or the likely effect of obtaining one.
With that in mind, we would encourage the Police Department and the City Council to conduct a thorough, public airing of the idea of seeking a gang injunction in Santa Maria. Explain the process, the pros and cons, and let the taxpayers know exactly how much it will cost and where that money would have to come from.
There’s much more to be gained than lost from such an effort.