This post is by Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna and State Representative Charles Ross of Yakima, the prime sponsor of McKenna's gang bill.

Rob McKenna
  • Rob McKenna
In 2010, in response to the murder of four police officers by parolee Maurice Clemmons, Gov. Chris Gregoire championed a constitutional amendment expanding the authority of judges to deny bail to particularly dangerous criminals. With overwhelming support of Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature, the amendment was passed by nearly 85 percent of voters. On the fringe of the debate, the ACLU of Washington opposed the amendment. It was a reminder that, certainly as far as criminal justice matters are concerned, the ACLU is far out of step with mainstream thinking.

This year the ACLU stakes out another extreme position, bashing a bipartisan bill to reduce gang violence. Instead of taking our offer to help improve the bill, the ACLU launched a cynical campaign of fear and deception. We regret that The Stranger’s Eli Sanders (Gangbanger, Jan. 25, 2011) bought into the ACLU’s tactics, falling for their arguments and accusing the bill’s authors of political motives.

The bill is the result of years of consideration by city leaders, police, and prosecutors. They’re concerned about the violence overwhelming communities, taking the lives of young people and catching innocent victims in the crossfire. Hardest hit are those in poor, ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

In some of these neighborhoods, indiscriminate shots fired into homes have become routine. In Wapato in 2009, a teenager unaffiliated with gangs was hit in the face by a stray bullet. He had made the mistake of looking out his window at a gang-related disturbance outside. Just last week, a National Guardsman and another young man walking home from a Yakima high school were shot by gang members.

These kinds of incidents are why, year after year, families from Yakima and other gang-plagued towns beg the Legislature for help.

Yet the ACLU urges their members to blanket legislators with a computer-generated message suggesting the legislation allows “court orders that can prohibit lawful behavior such as travelling through certain areas, spending time with certain people, or wearing certain styles of clothing.”

Wrong! In fact, the bill being considered by the Legislature at the request of the Attorney General’s Office allows protection orders against active and documented members of criminal street gangs — organizations that exist primarily to deal drugs, commit robberies and control territory.

This concept comes from states that have used similar laws to reduce gang crimes. We took the idea of anti-gang injunctions, like those used in California, added a wall of civil rights protections—like an automatic expiration date on the protection order—and then borrowed language from a law that protects victims of domestic violence. It adds up to a constitutional, yet powerful new tool for neighborhoods under siege.

If a prosecutor presents “clear and convincing evidence” to a judge that a person is an active member of a criminal street gang, the judge may order that person from engaging in a range of activities, including blocking entrances to public places, dealing drugs or wearing gang colors. Breaking those conditions is a gross misdemeanor. Yes, the subject of a protection order might be blocked from an otherwise legal activity — like carrying a gun — because he’s been shown to be involved in dangerous criminal organization. Still, the subject of the order is not charged with a crime unless he violates the conditions of the order.

Thankfully, many Washingtonians live a safe distance from the violence that ensnares many poor communities. But some who are shielded from the bloodshed find it irresistible to engage in intellectual debates about the rights of criminal gang members to wear whatever they want, whenever they want, while associating with whomever they want (including other criminal street gang members). Meanwhile, many low-income kids aren’t safe playing in their own yards. That’s why those on the right, left and center should reject the cynical tactics of the ACLU of Washington, and come together to combat gang violence.