As a community, we must tackle gang issue

Just as the economy has leading indicators of upticks and downturns, local law enforcement officers have indicators of increased criminal activity.

Sheriff Dan Kimball, Lacey Police Chief Dusti Pierpoint, Olympia Chief Gary Michel and Tumwater Chief John Stines see troubling signs of increasing gang activity.

The sky is not falling. The situation is not nearly as critical as the gang problem that hit the South Sound more than a decade ago. Local law enforcement officers simply want the public to be aware that graffiti staking out gang turf has begun to appear throughout the community and that the markings can be a precursor to violence.

The top cops are not in a panic. They aren’t asking for more tax dollars or even additional resources. They simply see increased gang violence in Yakima, Pierce County and Seattle and know that Thurston County is not immune. And the first indicator – turf markings – are popping up, with some gangs overlaying their markings on previous graffiti.

Turf markings generally foreshadow violence, according to Sheriff Kimball. But beyond one recent gang-related shooting in the Tanglewilde area of Thurston County, local police have not seen an escalation.

Chief Pierpoint estimates there are about 200 local gang members, but that number includes everyone who falls under the federal definition of a gang member – outlaw motorcycle gangs, white supremacists, street gangs and well-organized chapters of national/international gangs.

The community’s top law enforcement officers make an excellent point when they say that they don’t want to get caught flat footed like they did in the 1990s when Thurston County was embroiled in all-out gang wars.

This community was rocked to its core in November 1993 when 13-year-old Larry Rodgers of Lacey was stabbed to death as he walked along a street near his home. He was wearing a red hat and shirt and his three attackers mistook him for a rival gang member. Rodgers’ slaying prompted a call to action and the first community meeting drew 1,000 concerned residents.

The community began to mobilize. Anti-violence efforts were stepped up. New programs were created to give youngsters positive places to spend time after school and during the evenings. Law enforcement officers began to pool their resources and formed a gang unit to share intelligence. They worked with school officials to adopt “zero tolerance” policies on gang behavior and gang clothing. Social service agencies pooled their resources and worked with prosecutors who specialized in gang cases.

A lot of bad guys were sent to jail or prison.

It took a while to quell the violence. Kimball remembers that sheriff’s deputies responded to seven drive-by shootings in six months and handled three gang-related murders over the course of several years.

With dedicated community leaders united in their efforts, eventually the gang problem subsided. There have been relatively few local problems this decade.

But the first indicators are back and the community’s top law enforcement officers merely want to give alert residents.

What can we do?

First, homeowners, neighborhood associations and business owners need to take the initiative to get rid of the gang graffiti – immediately. Generally, the markings include Roman numerals or numbers and are clearly legible. Chief Michel said 80 percent of the graffiti in Olympia is not gang-related, but it’s important to get rid of all graffiti quickly.

Parents need to familiarize themselves with gang markings, check their children’s backpacks and question their clothing choices. Together, a grass-roots organization committed to reducing teen violence and alcohol and substance abuse is a good place to start. The number is 360-493-2230.

The police will work to suppress the problem, but the prevention and intervention responsibilities belong to the whole community.

Residents must stand behind Together, Community Youth Services and other social programs that help steer kids in positive directions. That’s where additional resources are needed.

As the economy worsens and the social service safety net frays and families break, more youngsters are going to fall prey to the lure of gang acceptance. By educating parents without alarming them, getting solid social programs in place, by continuing the outstanding work done by school officials and school resource officers, this community – united as one – can once again minimize gang problems, help our young people be safe and help them grow into happy, productive adults.