Thursday, March 19, 2009

Nashville Gang Sign Ban Is, Like, Totally Nuanced, Homie

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2009 at 6:19 AM

click to enlarge Unfortunately, no amount of legislation can stop these guys from taking pictures.
  • Unfortunately, no amount of legislation can stop these guys from taking pictures.

Metro police are working on a law that would make gang signs illegal. So says the Tennessean, which makes it seem as if imitating Lil Wayne will automatically land you in the back of a squad car.

At first glance, banning gang signs seems like a law everyone, no matter their political stripe, can line up against. Libertarians can call it unconstitutional. Conservatives can decry the money wasted locking up every kid throwing up a pair of crooked fingers. And University School seniors can bemoan their lack of hand-gesture options during the obligatory pre-prom photo session. After all, what's a boy to do if he can't toss a little West Side flava at that Nikon?

But further inspection reveals that the law might actually work -- police Sgt. Gary Kemper, head of Nashville's gang unit, is on board, and no one knows more about Music City's Bloods, Crips and Gangster Disciples. That's because the ban isn't about putting more people in jail. It's about treating gangs like the cohesive organizations they're striving to be, thus nullifying them.

Here's the gist: Let's say there's a gang terrorizing downtown Nashville. For arguments sake we'll call them the Campfields. Everyone knows the Campfields are up to no good. They stalk about in the legislative plaza, flashing their signature sign (a "C", naturally) and robbing little old ladies... 

According to Kathy Evans, the Metro lawyer responsible for writing the bill, Nashville police and neighborhood leaders would have to satisfy a high burden of proof that the Campfields are 1) a gang and 2) breaking the law. This would only be possible with tons of evidence -- in California cities like San Francisco and San Diego, where similar bans already exist, this means providing thousands of pages of discovery documents.*

*When first tasked with the assignment, Evans was razzed by fellow employees for working on something that, at first blush, seemed to blatantly violate free speech. They gave her her own gang sign: an upside down pointer finger, as in down with the First Amendment.

Evans says the bill is narrowly focused to target only actual gang members. The effect being that it reduces profiling and prevents gangs like the Campfields from grouping in their normal haunts. That makes recruiting new members more difficult. And research from other cities shows that, because gangs are extremely territorial, they're more likely to stay hidden rather than find a new place to gather.

"In the places where this has happened there's been a huge reduction in gang activity," says Evans. "It freaks them out to be on a list. It's the community saying 'We know who you are.' It's totally psychological."

The bill is still in draft form but will be in the legislature soon. Here's hoping, when it finally reaches the statehouse, people like Evans will actually have time to explain the intricacies of why it works, rather than pulling out plastic waterguns, making pew-pew noises and saying "gangs bad" over and over.

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