Unfair Punishment Part One: Victim Discrimination 

A state program that's supposed to help crime victims denies people who have had run-ins with the law or are afraid of being victimized again.

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His attorneys advised against it. "It was a conflict of interest," said Leal. "I would've talked with any cop and tell them my story, but not ... Keely."

Michael Siegel, one of the lawyers who represented alleged gang members in the case, said that police searched and raided the homes of those named in the injunction soon after it was filed. When Keely arrived at the home of Leal, it wasn't even clear if he was there to talk about the recent shooting or simply to advance OPD's gang injunction case against him in court, Siegel said. "It was an incredibly unjust situation. Keely is providing direct evidence against Ruben. It was definitely not in [Leal's] interest ... to have communications with him."

Siegel further noted that, at the time, Leal "was not an active gang member. He was making a positive impact on his community."

Leal's medical bills related to the shooting, however, had started to pile up, to more than $100,000 total at the time. He applied for Victim Compensation to cover some of the costs, which he could not afford. Within about a month, he got a notice of rejection, citing the fact that he did not cooperate with police.

"I felt like I was being revictimized," said Leal. "I felt like I didn't have no support from nobody."

He and his attorneys appealed the denial, but never heard back, according to Leal and Siegel. They said they also tried to make it clear to OPD that Leal would be willing to talk to a different cop. OPD spokesperson Frank Bonifacio noted that Victim Compensation approves claims — not police departments. Keely declined to comment on Leal's case, but said that, in general, a victim can have his attorney present when talking to police and in some cases can give a statement to a different officer if there is a concern about a specific investigator. But it is crucial that victims cooperate, he said: "The most important thing for us is to solve the case any way possible."

Regardless, Leal did not get the financial support California typically provides to victims of gun violence, which was a significant obstacle to his physical and psychological recovery.

"The folks that have suffered this trauma — they should invest in these people. This is not rocket science," said Leal. "If you don't help them overcome that traumatic experience, they're going to find a way, and the way they find is not going to be healthy for them or for others. ... The way they are going to feel better is reproducing that trauma onto someone else."

In other words, the cycle of violence continues. And the pain lingers. After the shooting, Leal suffered several serious panic attacks. "He had hurt in his eyes and in his spirit," said George Galvis, executive director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, recalling his first time meeting Leal, shortly after the shooting. "He looked wounded."

Leal said he has made significant progress since the incident. Still, he added, "Some of those scars are never going to heal."

The Victim Compensation program's rejection of Leal is a relatively common occurrence, according to some Alameda County activists. People caught up in street violence often have had past interactions with law enforcement, which can become an obstacle to receiving the aid they need to recover. Leal said he could think of about ten people he knows who have been denied, even some who cooperated with police despite the risks associated with snitching. The only time he has heard of approvals were for families of homicide victims seeking coverage for funeral expenses.

Victim Compensation also bars access for those involved in the events leading up to the crime, including "mutual combat," "illegal drug-related activity," and "gang involvement." The program's regulations state that gang membership alone is not a disqualifying factor, but several advocates who help victims navigate the application process said it seems that way in practice.

"If you're wearing any particular color that a police officer might deem is gang related, then that's something ... that can get you denied," said Linnea Ashley, training and advocacy manager of the National Network of Hospital-based Violence Intervention Programs. Ashley is based in Oakland at the offices of Youth ALIVE!, a nonprofit and a founding member of the network.

Erroneous statements in police reports can also disqualify victims from receiving compensation, said Rafael Vasquez, lead hospital intervention specialist with Youth ALIVE!'s Caught in the Crossfire program. That program offers case management for victims, often starting at hospitals immediately after a shooting. Part of that work involves helping them navigate the Victim Compensation process. Vasquez recalled one case of a young teenager who was shot in the head and survived — but was denied compensation because of a belt found at the crime scene that cops said indicated his gang involvement. In actuality, Vasquez said, the belt didn't even belong to the victim, who was not a gang member; rather, the crime simply occurred in an area with regular gang violence.

In these kinds of cases, people are essentially rejected because of where they live, a form of victim-blaming, said Kyndra Simmons, Caught in the Crossfire program manager. "You went into an area where you know there's criminal activity. It's almost as if you put yourself in that situation. But that's where they can afford to live."


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