For years, Spokane police struggled to keep downtown’s West First Avenue from turning into a war zone.
They’ve periodically stepped up patrols. They’ve targeted cars shopping for drugs and prostitutes. They’ve tried to move out gangs and dealers by doing undercover surveillance.
But two shootings that wounded six people in the last eight days are pushing city officials into a new anti-gang battle on the notorious block.
“We’re having turf wars just like you see in California,” Cpl. Jon Strickland said.
As a result of the battles between gangs, police are developing a strategy that Police Chief Terry Mangan will unveil Monday.
The most recent of the two shootings came at 3 a.m. Sunday, when a man leaned from a passing car’s window and fired several shots into a crowd near the Coach House Restaurant, injuring three women and two men.
Forty-eight hours earlier on July 26, police found a 22-year-old man on the sidewalk by the Coach House. He had been shot several times.
Two men were arrested in Sunday’s drive-by shooting. No arrests were made in the earlier shooting.
After watching the 1100 block of First Avenue during two nights this week, one thing became clear - police play a cat-and-mouse game with the street’s after-dark residents.
The street quickly empties when police show their muscle. Once they’re gone, trouble seeps back onto the streets from the Coach House, nearby alleys, apartments and adjacent streets.
Police who work downtown said they’ve been worried about West First, but have never had the permanent manpower to stop criminals from endangering the hundreds of poor, mentally ill and elderly who live in the area.
What’s more, the gangs and drug dealers refuse to cooperate, often citing constitutional rights.
“They know they can tell me to take a hike and there’s nothing I can do,” Strickland said.
One suspected crack dealer who was stopped by police overnight Wednesday furiously objected to being questioned.
On a night with temperatures in the high 80s, he wore a long, hooded coat and sang a rap song laced with profanity as he repeatedly walked around the block.
Two police officers later stopped the suspected dealer at First and Madison. He claimed he was walking around until he got hungry for a meal he had waiting for him at the Coach House.
One officer went inside the restaurant and found the man had no meal waiting. So they searched him.
“You can’t touch me. I got rights,” he protested to the officers.
“I’m not doing nothing. I’m walking by on the concrete.”
But police were tipped that he carried a gun and was at the scene of the two recent shootings.
The search proved futile.
Why do the prostitutes, dealers and others hang around West First?
“It’s self-explanatory,” one drug addict said.
“This is where I come to get my drugs,” said the man who hung out on nearby Jefferson about 3 a.m. Thursday. “I don’t mean nobody no harm. I’m not a robber.”
He said he doesn’t want to use drugs around his family, so he hangs around West First.
“Where’s the homeless going to go if they keep running them off?” said Paco Angumo, 53, who walked the street. “We’re not the trouble.”
Strickland, who patrolled the area overnight Wednesday, agreed.
“He’s sort of right, Paco is. The problem is some of the younger bangers,” Strickland said, referring to gang members.
One big problem is that powerful gangs recruit street kids, prostitutes and residents to serve as their liaisons in drug transactions.
“They bully them,” Strickland said of the big dealers and their intimidating tactics in controlling the West First turf.
Even if police catch those making the deals, the high-powered gang members and dealers remain free, their intimidated lackeys taking the fall.
“Sometimes all you’re going to do is get the runner,” he said. “You don’t know who’s in charge.”
Strickland believes Spokane needs to spend money on a police presence that will make the city unattractive and unprofitable to California gang members.
“If we just give up, you’d have chaos and anarchy,” Strickland said.
Even pushing the troublemakers off West First isn’t enough. They’ll just move to other streets and areas or return once police patrols are cut back.
Francis White, who works at the Chevron at Third and Monroe, said he was on duty during both recent shootings and even heard some gun pops.
“It ain’t the first time I’ve heard gunshots around here,” he said. “It sends a chill through you.”
White said the convenience store telephones behind the building are often used by drug dealers.
“We’ve got to crack down on the phones,” he said. “It makes me angry.”
Sgt. Stanley McGhee said the police and public need to keep the pressure on drug dealers and gang members, even if they clear out for a while.
“If you don’t stay with it and maintain it, they just come back.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos
MEMO: See related story under the headline: City struggles to solve West First problems