Despite crackdown, local gang activity grows
A Spokane task force created to quell the area’s growing gang problem is taking guns off the streets, seizing drugs and successfully working cases that result in arrests and convictions.
But gang membership continues to grow, according to a federal report released last month.
Criminal gangs counted 1 million members nationally in 2008, an increase of 215,000 members since 2006, according to the report by the U.S. Justice Department’s National Gang Intelligence Center. Gangs now exist in all 50 states.
“Local street gangs, or neighborhood-based street gangs, remain a significant threat because they continue to account for the largest number of gangs nationwide,” the report states. “Most engage in violence in conjunction with a variety of crimes, including retail-level drug distribution.”
The report says gangs account for as much as 80 percent of the violent crimes in many communities. Spokane County’s gang membership is near 1,000, with an additional 6,000 to 7,000 associates, according to local authorities. Associates are people who hang around with gang members and participate in some of their activities but don’t yet meet three of nine criteria that officials use to define gang members.
Gang members and associates here are also believed to be responsible for 80 percent of the area’s violent crimes, local officials say.
But it’s hard to gauge the level of gang involvement with certainty, said Frank Harrill, FBI supervisor for the Eastern Washington region. Harrill works with the Spokane Violent Crimes Gang Task Force, a combination of local, state and federal authorities and prosecutors.
“The number of gang members is not easy to capture at any given moment,” Harrill said. “It’s not derived from any Census-like process. It has to be developed over time.”
Task forces like Spokane’s, and a similar multi-agency effort in Coeur d’Alene that’s mostly focused on violent crime, help “focus diminishing law enforcement resources on a problem that affects the whole community,” Harrill said. “It pays big dividends.”
Operation Hybris, Spokane’s largest one-day takedown of a drug-trafficking ring, was the result of a months-long investigation by Spokane’s task force, assisted by tribal authorities and federal gang task forces in Coeur d’Alene and the Tri-Cities. The operation netted 47 arrests and the seizure of large amounts of drugs, money and guns, authorities said. Nineteen of those arrested have been convicted in federal court, and authorities say they expect convictions on most or all of the group eventually.
After the bust, the price of crack cocaine soared because of the disruption in the supply chain, authorities said.
Spokane’s task force to combat gangs formed in 2006 as the Gang Enforcement Team. In January 2008, the unit shifted to the Spokane Violent Crimes Gang Task Force, joining 139 others like it nationwide under the FBI’s Safe Streets program. The task force includes the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, Spokane Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, the Washington Department of Corrections, the Washington State Patrol and the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office.
About 80 percent of the unit’s time is spent investigating gang crimes, with the remainder focused on other violent crimes, Harrill said.
Violent crimes and gang-related crimes “bleed together,” said Lt. Dave Richards, another member of the task force. “That’s why it’s a good fit.”
Officials acknowledge that news about gang-related crimes seems rare, but labeling by law enforcement is inconsistent, partly because it can lead to prejudice, said Spokane County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Kittilstved. The cost of Spokane County’s task force is nearly $1.5 million annually, paid through a combination of local, state and federal funds, officials said.
Since the emphasis on gangs began in fall 2006, 842 cases have been filed with the county and federal prosecutors’ offices involving thousands of crimes, officials said. In 2008, 364 cases involving 1,966 crimes were filed with the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office alone.
About 85 percent of the cases filed end with a conviction, Chief Criminal Spokane County Prosecutor Jack Driscoll said. Also, any member of the task force can take gang cases to the U.S. Attorney’s office, providing the potential for stiffer penalties.
In North Idaho, the task force likewise operates under the FBI’s Safe Streets program.
Because “we don’t have a gang problem of the magnitude that Spokane has at this point,” that task force focuses more on violent crime, said Don Robinson, supervisory senior resident agent of the FBI’s North Idaho office. Still, he said, “we are seeing indicators. We have some local groups that are forming. Our goal as a task force is to stay in front of it. We want to make it unappealing for them to come to Coeur d’Alene.”
North Idaho’s team, which started in November 2007, includes members from the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department, Coeur d’Alene Police, Post Falls Police, Idaho State Police, the Idaho Department of Corrections and Coeur d’Alene Tribal Police.
The collaborative effort has worked well, authorities say. Nationwide, for investigating violent crimes and tackling the gang problem, “this is the model that we find really works,” Robinson said.