Erasing the Past, Creating a Future, Part 2: The Law

This is the second in a three-part series on Homeboy Industries' free tattoo removal program.
Part 1  |  Part 3

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Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries (left), with City Prosecutor Doug Haubert (right). Photo courtesy of Long Beach Police Department.

The gang war that raged in the streets of Long Beach over two decades ago reads like something out of a Hollywood movie script. Cambodian and Latino gangs, entrenched in a turf war as bloody as it was brazen, forcing residents to seek refuge indoors when the sun set to avoid the flurry of bullets seeking revenge.

During an 18-month period in the early 90s, there were 55 drive-by shootings in the city, mostly along the crowded Anaheim corridor where Cambodia Town sits. The New York Times depicted the battle between the Longos and Asian street gangs and the crime-riddled neighborhoods they ruled—the same gang-ravaged streets illustrated in rap lyrics from Long Beach natives Snoop Dogg and Warren G—in an article published in May of that year.

"They are blasting each other, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth," Detective Norm Sorensen of the Long Beach Police told the Times. "We still have some now that haven't been paid back for yet, and you can be sure that they will be."

The gang problem was out of control in Long Beach.

The City—and its crime rates—have changed immensely since then. When Doug Haubert was elected city prosecutor in 2010, he didn’t inherit a Long Beach reminiscent of the 90s, where gang violence ensnarled the streets and had residents running for cover. Shootouts between the Asian Boyz and Longo gangs that were prevalent decades ago were no longer frequent front-page news, but violent crime and gang activity also weren't at the level Haubert thought that they could be.

Shortly after being voted into office, and with the support of the Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles, Haubert signed a broad gang injunction initiative, mostly targeting the Hispanic Sureño gangs that dominate the city, to help curb the violence. The injunctions are basically restraining orders stipulating that gang members can’t fraternize with other gang members or participate in gang activities within designated zones without facing charge enhancements.

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Photo courtesy of Hendon Media Group.

They injunctions are compiled with the help of gang experts like LBPD’s Gang Prevention Detective Chris Zamora, and they’re enforced at the street level by patrolling officers, with the help of new technology introduced last year created by Laserfiche. The technology allows LBPD officers in the field to scroll through pictures, names and other charges to quickly determine if a person is subject to the injunctions.

“Suddenly any gang member in Long Beach affiliated with the Sureños—and that is pretty much every gang member in Long Beach—could now face three months jail time for what were previously everyday gang activities,” Police Chief Jim McDonnell wrote in an article published by the Hendon Media Group. “These include hanging out with known gang members, disobeying a 10 pm to 5 am curfew, obstructing public right-of-ways, intimidation, and gang signaling, and having graffiti tools such as spray paint.”

Zamora put it more simply, recalling a trial he attended where a gang member paid a compliment to the effectiveness of the injunctions with an angry outburst in court.

“This isn’t fair, you’re making it too hard to be a gang member in your city,” Zamora recounted him saying.

Since 2009, the year before the injunctions went into effect, gang-related arrests skyrocketed from just 35 in 2009 to a peak of 269 in 2012. After reaching that peak, the numbers have fallen precipitously to 230 last year and further down to a total of 44 as of February of this year, according to statistics in Police Chief Magazine. However, the eventual goal of both Haubert and Zamora is to eliminate these gangs completely so they can stop arresting gang members and instead, help former members live normal, law-abiding lives.

“Our goal in the city of Long Beach is for this to be the last generation of gang members from these specific gangs,” Zamora said.

Operation Opt Out, which stemmed from the Project IMPACT community policing initiative started by the city prosecutor’s office, is a tool that the duo hopes can start that process. Opt Out is a four step program that allows gang members who are served under the gang injunction to have their name removed once they’ve proven they’re no longer active members of the gang.

Gangsters hoping to Opt Out have to acquire two community sponsors, be in school or working (Haubert prefers full time enrollment/employment), and be involved in some level of community service. The last step, and the one that Haubert and Zamora view as the most identifiable way to see if they’re truly serious about distancing themselves from the gang, is the removal of all visible gang tattoos.

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"I would question the commitment of someone that says 'I no longer want to be part of the gang, but I still want to have these gang tattoos displayed on my arm when I walk down the street,'” Haubert said. “Gangs know who’s in and who’s not and you don’t screw around with that.”

While stopping short of comparing them to police uniforms, Haubert said that more often than not, tattoos worn by gang members display allegiance, rank and what you have done in the past or are willing to do in the future for the organization. Haubert said, as the ink expands across their skin, the gang begins to consume the person.

“Gang guys don’t wear uniforms, they have tattoos,” Haubert said. “When they see each other they know what theses tattoos mean, it symbolizes your commitment to the group, your rank within the group.”

The removal of the ink, and the means by which they’re taken off, started when Zamora began searching around about 4 years ago for a program to partner with. It was important for him to link up with an organization that was doing things right to ensure that he was bringing people in the Opt Out program to a proper place. That's when Zamora found Homeboy Industries and Father Greg Boyle, who had a reputation for being a pioneer in gang rehabilitation, and having a facility that offered free laser tattoo removal. The foundation for a proactive and peaceful gang enforcement strategy was set.

“If you’re doing wrong, I can arrest you. If you want to do right, I can help you,” Zamora said. “And I think that’s the future of gang enforcement.”

For Zamora, the future involves visiting his past. He’s arrested many of the people he now personally drives to downtown Los Angeles to visit the tattoo removal clinic. He always goes in full uniform, but it's not to be confused with police duty. Nobody is under arrest, and instead of talking about neighborhood politics and criminal activity, the transitioning gang members ask him advice about tax returns, job applications and getting to bed early for work the next morning.

Getting the tattoos removed serves many purposes. Demonstrating a commitment to stepping away from the life meets the requirement of the program, but employability is a huge factor. Being labeled as non-hirable because of gang tattoos contributes to the cycle that keeps people on the streets and involved in gang activities.

“Right now it’s hard enough to get a job when you’ve got a college degree and you look like you’d be a stable employee,” Haubert said. “Now imagine you’ve got all these piercings and tattoos. What does that tell an employer?”

Additionally, they can cause safety problems, both for the person covered in tattoos and anyone around them. Even if they’re not active, the visible tattoos are still on display, which could make them a target for rival gangs. Zamora said it’s a not a common practice for gangsters to ask if somebody is in the Opt Out program before defending their turf. Removing them makes everyone safer.

“Many times rival gang members won’t ask, ‘Hey, are you getting that tattoo removed? Hey, are you working right now?'” Zamora said. “They will see the tattoo and usually a violent act will occur. By erasing those gang tattoos, you’re not only making the individual safe, you’re making the community safe. Stray bullets have unfortunately killed innocent civilians in the city of Long Beach.”

Getting a person off the gang injunction is beneficial to both the individual, and to a city that is just coming out of a period of cutbacks that reduced the number of police officers and the resources available to them. Arresting people who are no longer active wastes time and money for the department, something that Haubert said could be remedied with a larger involvement in the program. In the last three years the city has successfully removed 6 people from the injunction list with another 15 in the application stage. It’s not a large number but to Haubert, it’s a start.

“For 15-plus years we’ve had gang injunctions, we’ve just never had a meaningful way to get off one,” Haubert said. “So it’s been one-directional for all these years. Ten to twenty might not sound like a big number but for the last fifteen years the number’s been zero.”

But to Zamora, one person out of the gang means eroding the generational cycle of membership and recruitment. He estimates that opting out works similarly to jumping into gang life. Just like every gang member is a potential recruiter, every person wanting out can spread the word about the program. So far, there has been no retaliation for participating in the program.

It’s rare to see both sides of the gang enforcement coin, but Zamora said he much prefers helping people to arresting them. There are many turning points for choosing to Opt Out. Disillusionment and pressure from family rank near the top. Whatever the case, Zamora says they never expect a police officer to be the person that extends their hand for assistance. Although he dedicates time on the job to ensure that they get there safely, Zamora knows he’s not the only one making sacrifices.

“The doctors that work and volunteer their time at Homeboy Industries are making the ultimate sacrifice,” Zamora said. “They sacrifice their time, they sacrifice their expertise. These are professionals that could be doing this exact procedure for lots of money and they do it for free.”

Homeboy Industries is currently in the middle of a crowd-funding campaign to bring their aging equipment and operations into the 21st century. The program need new lasers, cooling machines, an electronic medical record, numbing creams and much more to continue to provide the level of care they've come to be known for. To donate, click here.

Continue to Part 3: The Doctor



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