No Short Cuts on Straight Path

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy has asked a NYS Supreme Court judge to bar 37 known gang members from hanging out together within a carefully drawn two-square-mile “safety zone” in Wyandanch. “Gangs have the propensity to take over schoolyards, street corners, playgrounds and many areas within a downtown district,” he said at an August 16th press conference flanked by SCPD brass, community activists, and frustrated residents.

Predictably, the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns about profiling, due process and the legality of banning people from public places. But Suffolk’s legal maneuver isn’t entirely new or novel. Los Angeles starting getting gang injunctions in the late 1980’s and today, the city has reportedly won 37 injunctions covering 57 gangs and a total of 11,000 gang members. Court decisions nationwide have been mixed, but carefully worded and limited injunctions have survived constitutional muster and a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Criminal Justice Research suggests that injunctions in California’s urban areas with significant gang penetration have effectively reduced serious crime by 12-17%.

Whether Suffolk’s injunction would produce similar results remains an open question, but it’s safe to say that forcing these 37 bad guys to find new friends won’t solve the myriad problems in Wyandanch, nor will it prevent gang organizing and its resultant violence, drug dealing and other criminal activity. Banish them from Straight Path and there will be another 37 young men and women ready to take their place. And 37 more after that. 

Why? It’s not that the bad guys are brilliant. Gang recruiting is easy given the right environment and an absence of other options. Kids join gangs because they want a sense of belonging and because they have nothing else to do.  Beyond the obvious benefits of protection, potential financial gain and a daily adrenaline rush, gangs serve as a surrogate family for young people, creating a sense of identity, social support, solidarity and kinship.

Want to run gangs out of Wyandanch? Go beyond the traditional suppression efforts that play well at press conferences and with community members at their wits’ end. Try funding – or maybe even just stop cutting – youth services. Clean-up and expand playgrounds, teen centers and public parks. Foster a renewed sense of community through outreach efforts, neighborhood activities and educational programs. Strengthen and support families.  Give schools the resources they need to do their jobs. Reward the kids doing great things and encourage leadership. Support meaningful job opportunities, economic development, small business creation and success. Do that and we won’t need to worry about keeping 37 bad guys out of a safety zone; we’ll be inviting tens of thousands of young people in.