First let me say the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) serves a useful purpose, even though I rarely agree with their take on things. For example, I believe the Washington State ACLU's opposition to an ordinance meant to give law enforcement better control over gangs is wrong. Let me explain.
The gang problems in Sunnyside, Washington, with a population around 14,000, continue to grow, despite the best efforts of its small police department. The city, which is three-quarters Hispanic, is near Yakima.
This spring Sunnyside officials, tired of mounting problems with gang violence, decided to do something about it and passed an ordinance allowing police to aggressively pursue individuals who engage in peripheral gang activities. The matter is currently in front of the Washington State Attorney General's office for an opinion. The attorney general could negate the ordinance, but town officials are hopeful it will stand.
The ordinance makes joining a gang illegal and prohibits hand signals, wearing gang-related clothes and other typical gang activities. The law also provides penalties for persons found guilty of participating in such activity, including eviction, condemnation of dwellings and holding parents criminally responsible for not intervening if their child is in a gang.
While this sounds harsh, Sunnyside is a city trying to prevent gangs from taking over. The vast majority of residents are hard-working people who, like the rest of us, want to raise their kids in a safe and nurturing environment. They want the gangs out of there and believe the ordinance will help.
Into the fray comes the ACLU, which says the ordinance is unconstitutional. On its Web site, the organization opposes the law because of what it terms the ordinance's "vague" and "overly broad" definitions. As an example, the ACLU says enforcement of such an ordinance could lead to a church support group composed of former gang members to be considered a gang in and of itself and in violation of that ordinance.
Well, yes, that could happen — if the police department in Sunnyside hired morons. But the officers are smart, well-qualified and just plain tired of dealing with escalating gang violence. I think I can safely say Sunnyside officers recognize the difference between a church support group and gang activity.
The ACLU also claims that the ordinance could lead to racial profiling — a baffling remark in light of gang activity in which race is paramount. Using that logic, all anti-gang initiatives targeting specific Hispanic or Asian gangs would be racial profiling because, well, they target Hispanics or Asians. This is the kind of silly political correctness that keeps police from doing their jobs.
The ACLU says the ordinance also targets speech and appearance, and they are right. It targets gang-related speech and appearance. What's so bad about that?
Here are some other objections (my comments are in parenthesis):
- It punishes parents if their kids join gangs. (Parents should be held responsible for the actions of their kids. They are their children.)
- The ordinance isn't necessary. (Apparently the citizens of Sunnyside, who actually live there, disagree.)
- It distracts police from effective law enforcement. (That's got to be the silliest argument against an ordinance that I have ever come across. In its wisdom, the ACLU recommends police combat gang violence with after-school programs and unspecified "other programs." So instead of a police officer yelling, "Police! Drop that gun!" The ACLU wants them to yell, "Police! Want some ice cream and a game of Scrabble?")
If Sunnyside loses this one, the town should invite the ACLU to relocate their offices to Sunnyside. Maybe, in between painting over the gang graffiti on their walls, ACLU attorneys can entice MS-13 members to play a little "Go Fish" with them.
A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.