Summit on gangs to connect communities across Washington

Community leaders, educators, police to discuss prevention, intervention and suppression of gang violence

Gang activity is a problem in many cities, with gangs trafficking drugs and people through networks that crisscross the state.

That’s why better communication between communities is crucial to fighting the problem — and the Joint Summit on Gang Prevention and Intervention in Tacoma on Wednesday aims to strengthen those efforts.

The summit will host state and national experts on gang activity, including Eileen Garry, acting administrator of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, to share best practices and increase collaboration statewide. The event is intended for state, local and tribal community leaders, law enforcement, prosecutors, educators, providers of services for youth involved in gang activity and policymakers.

Gov. Jay Inslee hears from members of law enforcement and community leaders earlier this month in Yakima about the problem of gang violence in the city. A statewide conversation about gangs will take place Nov. 1 at the Joint Summit on Gang Prevention and Intervention in Tacoma. (Official Governor’s Office photo)

Gov. Jay Inslee had a similar discussion with local leaders earlier this month in Yakima, which is estimated to have the highest per capita rate of gang homicides in the state. The escalation in gang violence prompted Yakima officials to seek state funds for gang suppression and policing efforts in addition to the pursuit of prevention initiatives such as youth-engagement programs.

“The level of gang violence in Yakima and other parts of the state is unacceptable,” Inslee said. “While there is an obvious need for assistance for law enforcement, we know we also need preventive services. We need to out-recruit the gangs and connect our youth to something positive rather than a life that is dangerous to them and the community.”

Intervention and prevention models have had some success in cities around the state, including Spokane.

The Eastern Washington city of about 215,000 residents has about 200 known gangs, said Pastor Shon Davis, a member of the Kingdom Fellowship Church Alliance. The organization is composed of about 20 churches in the Spokane area and partners with schools to provide mediation, family outreach, mentorship and other services to gang-affected youth.

‘I survived it by the grace of God’

Davis can truly relate to the struggles facing the kids he serves. Born and raised in Compton, Calif., in the wake of the 1965 race riots, he joined a gang in his youth. Because of gang involvement, he was shot twice and two of his brothers were killed.

“Being a product of that environment, I say that I survived it by the grace of God,” Davis said.

He escaped that life and has been involved in gang-prevention programs since 1988. He became a pastor and moved to Spokane in 1994.

The following year, he started God’s Gym, a midnight basketball program for gang-affected youth. It gave young people something productive to do at night and got them off the streets. It also connected them with job and education services, as well as with help with navigating the criminal justice system.

For a young person who feels discouraged about their prospects in life, a gang can appear to offer a sense of belonging, identity and protection, Davis said.

A gang may also offer financial stability beyond anything a youth may have ever known, he said. For example, a mother might be on welfare, yet a gang is offering her child thousands of dollars to sell drugs or act as a lookout.

“How do you get them to say no to that?” he said. “My initial message to a lot of them is there are three ways out: You have prison, you have the grave and you have God. … We try to instill that spiritual side of their life. When you really know who you are and understand the meaning behind why you’re here, it gives you that self-confidence and self-worth about your future.”

While the church alliance still hosts the occasional midnight basketball game, it has shifted its efforts to two successful programs: the Police Activity League and the Youth Police Initiative.

The Police Activity League brings members of law enforcement and kids together for positive activities, such as flag football and learning programs, so youth can build good relationships with police. The Youth Police Initiative brings police officers into schools for honest dialogue with at-risk high school students about the students’ values and experiences.

Inslee’s office organized Monday’s summit in collaboration with the Attorney General’s Office, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the Washington State Association of Counties, the Association of Washington Cities and the Washington State Partnership Council on Juvenile Justice.

Davis, who plans to attend the summit, said he hopes the event unites cities across the state, “instead of everyone working in their own silos.” He also hopes to increase awareness about gang culture and empower state agencies to focus on more prevention strategies.

Gov. Jay Inslee participates in a panel discussion about gang violence earlier this month in Yakima alongside the Rev. Felipe Pulido of the St. Joseph Parish of Yakima. The Governor’s Office and other government agencies will host a Joint Summit on Gang Prevention and Intervention on Nov. 1 in Tacoma to continue the conversation. (Official Governor’s Office photo)

Law enforcement

Brad Richmond, president of the Northwest Gang Investigators Association, said collaboration across the state is vital to gang suppression. The organization trains law enforcement officers on how to disrupt and dismantle criminal-enterprise organizations and encourages police to work with community partners to prevent gang activity.

Crimes committed by gangs cover a broad spectrum, including violent crime, drug trafficking and sex trafficking. The criminal networks created by gangs span the state and the region, and infiltrate other parts of the country, Richmond said.

One important strategy, then, is increasing the information and data collected and shared by all levels of law enforcement, he said.

“Sharing of intelligence and collaboration is a huge asset to fighting gangs within our communities,” said Richmond, who is also a detective with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

Law enforcement agencies have found success in cracking down on gangs through the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force program, which brings federal, state and local resources together to conduct long-term investigations of the most violent and prolific gangs in a community, Richmond said.

Another effective tactic has been working with the Washington State Department of Corrections to gather intelligence about gang activity from inside the prisons, he said. Police and probation officers also work together to catch incarcerated gang members who reoffend.

Richmond said, however, that to prevent gang violence long term, leaders and policymakers must get to the root of the problem: helping at-risk kids and supporting struggling families.

“I’m hoping that we come to some collective agreement on how we can do that statewide,” Richmond said about the summit.