December 7, 2009

A small town hard hit by gangs fights back

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It’s a small town America we’re not accustomed to reading about. Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Melissa Sanchez vividly describes a six-block area of the unincorporated town of Outlook in rural Yakima County in central Washington, home to as many as 150 gang members and only sporadically policed.

rita_hibbardwebShe writes of a sheriff’s deputy shot in the leg by one gang member to impress other gang members. Of a 22-year old man charged with shooting and killing a 14-year-old runaway after she planned to report being raped at a party in town. Of the shootings of at least three teens in the past 16 months. Of a community where one in every five residents belongs to a gang, and many of the rest live terrified behind locked doors.

No community block watch groups exist here. There are few organized activities for young people. Law enforcement falls to the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, but only four deputies are on patrol at any given moment for the entire Lower Yakima Valley, a sprawling geographic area. And often, the sheriff admits there are even fewer deputies on patrol.

The community has cobbled together a response. The sheriff’s office and school district have joined forces to obtain a small grant – $40,000 – to hire a social worker to go into homes after gang-related arrests and help connect the families to needed social services.

“We found that poverty is a big contributor to why people get involved in gangs,” said Heather Elmore, education services manager for the Northwest Community Action Center, which is involved in the project. “So we want to make sure that the real basic needs are met — that there’s food, the heating bills are paid, that there are beds to sleep on,” she said.

In addition, the social worker will work with residents to help them develop community improvement projects like soccer fields or skate parks.

“You see kids on the street, kids who look like they’re up to no good. But we don’t say anything to them,” said Guadalupe Liceo, a 72-year-old retired farm worker who has lived in Outlook for about 13 years. “You get nervous talking to them because they might come back and do something to you.”

Maybe this small step will begin to change that. But it’s a problem that is not new to rural counties in Washington. In nearby Grant County, half the jail beds are occupied by gang members, and sheriff’s deputies struggle to patrol a huge geographic territory where gang members are active,  Steve Beaven of the The Oregonian reported recently.

In the past six years the expanse of the county has made it a “quasi-safe haven” for between 20 and 25 Latino gangs that identify with either the Norteno or Sureno brands. Officials have documented 350 known gang members, and as many as 200 more gang associates. “That’s a low estimate,” said Grant County Undersheriff John Turley, who said the spike in gang activity is the largest he’s seen in a decade. “Our intelligence tells us there has been a big push by California prison gangs to bolster their population.”

The rural county is seeing a surge in homicides  — twice as many deaths as the county typically investigates in a year. At the same time, there have been more than 30 gang-related drive-by shootings.  The Grant County Sheriff’s Office recently received a $250,000 federal grant to hire two gang officers to assist with intelligence-gathering and community prevention.

— Rita Hibbard

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