Fed up with deadly drive-by shootings, incessant drug dealing and graffiti, cities nationwide are trying a different tactic to combat gangs: They're suing them.
Fort Worth and San Francisco are among the latest to file lawsuits against gang members, asking courts for injunctions barring them from hanging out together on street corners, in cars or anywhere else in certain areas.
The injunctions are aimed at disrupting gang activity before it can escalate. They also give police legal reasons to stop and question gang members, who often are found with drugs or weapons, authorities said. In some cases, the injunctions don't allow gang members to talk to people passing in cars or to carry spray paint.
"It is another tool," said Kevin Rousseau, a Tarrant County assistant prosecutor in Fort Worth, which recently filed its first civil injunction against a gang. "This is more of a proactive approach."
Critics say such lawsuits go too far, limiting otherwise lawful activities and unfairly targeting minority youth.
"If you're barring people from talking in the streets, it's difficult to tell if they're gang members or if they're people discussing issues," said Peter Bibring, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "And it's all the more troubling because it doesn't seem to be effective."
Civil injunctions were first filed against gang members in the 1980s in the Los Angeles area, a breeding ground for gangs including some of the country's most notorious.
Chicago enacted an antiloitering ordinance in 1992, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 1999, saying it gave police the authority to arrest without cause.
Since then, cities have used injunctions to target specific gangs or gang members, and so far that strategy has withstood court challenges.
Los Angeles has 33 permanent injunctions involving 50 gangs, and studies have shown they do reduce crime, said Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office.
Those who disobey the orders face a misdemeanor charge and up to a year in jail.
Some former gang members say such legal maneuvers wouldn't have stopped them.
Usamah Anderson, 30, of Fort Worth said he got involved with gangs as a homeless 11-year-old. He was arrested many times for theft and spent time in juvenile facilities.
He said if a civil injunction had been in place then, he and his friends would have moved outside the safety zone.
"That's the life you live, so you're going to find a way to maneuver around it," said Anderson, a truck driver who abandoned the gang life about seven years ago and has started a church to help gang members.
The ACLU and other critics of gang injunctions favor community programs. The Rev. Jack Crane, pastor of Truevine Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, is helping Anderson's group. "We don't want to lose another generation," Crane said.