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Small towns try to take on gangs

In Washington state, frustrated municipalities pass rules of their own to combat rising crime.

September 03, 2007|Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writer

SUNNYSIDE, WASH. — To a casual visitor, this rural central Washington town doesn't look like it is experiencing a crisis. Along the Yakima Valley Highway, lined with tractor dealers, fast-food restaurants and strip malls, there are few signs of the gang activity that scares and frustrates residents, police and city officials.

But in neighborhoods north and south of town, graffiti, fights, vandalism and theft are commonplace. Two teenagers were wounded in a gang shooting this summer, and a 26-year-old woman died in a domestic incident involving gang members.

Amelia Rodriguez, 31, who lives with her sister's family south of downtown, barely let her two boys, 7 and 10, out of sight during their summer vacation.

"If I can see them, know who they talk to, where they are, I know they are safe," Rodriguez says.

An upswing in gang activity throughout rural Yakima Valley -- and what smaller towns like Sunnyside see as the state's failure to enact laws to combat it -- has led to a flurry of action at the city government level.

Sunnyside, population 14,000, passed an ordinance in May that made gang membership a crime and established civil penalties for the parents of juveniles involved in gang crime. Yakima, Union Gap and Centralia have passed similar ordinances.

Gang activity peaked in Yakima Valley in the early 1990s. Get-tough programs instituted by law enforcement produced a period of declining membership, but recently, drive-by shootings, drug crimes and tagging have increased dramatically.

"We needed another tool to tackle the problem before the situation runs away from us," says Sunnyside City Manager Bob Stockwell, who openly expressed his frustration with the Legislature's unsuccessful effort to tackle gang violence.

In its last session, the Legislature considered a statewide law to curb gang activity but shelved it and formed a task force to study the problem instead. The failure to enact a new law was seen as a betrayal by small towns. So Sunnyside took matters into its own hands.

The city's ordinance, which draws from California's Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention of 1988, makes gang membership a gross misdemeanor, punishable by a year in jail. Though the ordinance has been in place since late May, no one has been arrested.

"Only the Legislature can determine what constitutes a felony," City Atty. Mark Kunkler says. "The city is doing what it can, within its power."

Aaron Caplan, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said the Sunnyside law was flawed.

"The main issue is that the definition of gangs and gang activity here is too vague," he said. "I have read the law about 20 times, and I still don't know what conduct is forbidden. In criminal law, it is crucial to define what conduct is off-limits to people. Otherwise the police decide." Caplan also said the ordinance opened a door to profiling.

A report by the cities of Yakima and Union Gap estimates that Yakima has 15 active gangs and more than 1,000 gang members, of whom about half are under 18. Sunnyside city officials say they have at least 250 resident gang members, most of them juveniles.

In Centralia, a city of 16,000 across the Cascade Mountains, 140 miles west of Sunnyside, gang activity has gone up 45% in the last year, Police Chief Robert Berg says. He says it is directly tied to the activity in the Yakima Valley.

All the towns involved are proceeding cautiously, giving police officers special training and working on other approaches, such as anti-gang programs in local schools.

Stockwell says of the ordinance: "We want to be sure we use it properly. I don't for a minute think the ACLU wants to protect criminals, and equally we don't want to violate anyone's rights."

Mike Beagan, president of the Northwest Gang Investigators Assn., a nonprofit group of law enforcement and legal professionals from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, says the law must be enforceable to have any effect.

"It has to have teeth, and that means it would have to stand up in court," Beagan said.

Beagan said that in many cases where cities had tried such ordinances, the measures had not stood up to legal scrutiny.

Kunkler is confident that the Sunnyside law is constitutional. An informal verbal opinion from the state attorney general's office, requested by Sunnyside, concurred. A formal opinion is pending.

Gang activity moves in cycles, upswings followed by downturns, according to the Justice Department's National Youth Gang Center. Beagan, also an investigator at the Oregon Department of Corrections, thinks there is a current surge in gang crime in Washington and Oregon.

He applauded the effort in Sunnyside and the other towns.

"They are doing something progressive, trying to deal with the gang issue before it becomes a huge problem, or a Los Angeles-sized problem," he says.

--

lynn.marshall@latimes.com

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