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As Spokane’s gang activity grows, police expand tactics

Sun., June 23, 2013

Problem reflects nationwide trend

Police are adding hundreds of gang members to a sophisticated Spokane-area database, using technology to track crime and criminals.

It’s part of a law enforcement effort to better understand gang-related crime in Spokane.

Nationally, gangs are responsible for 80 percent of violent crimes in most communities where they have strong membership.

Fresh statistics about gang-related crime in Spokane aren’t yet available, but news headlines since January are telling:

“Two shot, two beaten in north Spokane.” “Child hit in drive-by shooting near Othello.” “Gunfire bares federal probe: Spokane Valley warehouse focus of gang investigation.” “Two shootings leave two men dead.”

Spokane police Chief Frank Straub said gang activity drives property crime, violence and drug activity. Gangs represent “a growing threat to our community, particularly our young people,” he said.

Gangs have long been a reality in Spokane. The criminal organizations first arrived in the area more than three decades ago to sell drugs. Finding it profitable, the migration continued and crimes expanded. In 2009, authorities reported nearly 1,000 confirmed gang members in the Spokane area and nearly 7,000 gang associates.

Although authorities won’t divulge current gang membership figures, they say it has grown.

“We have seen an increase, and perhaps a significant one, but part of that is due to our better ability to identify” gang members, said FBI senior agent Frank Harrill, a member of the Spokane Violent Crimes Gang Enforcement Team, composed of local, state and federal law enforcement.

The growth is reflective of a nationwide trend.

The good news, he said, is that “we are increasingly able to address a national issue. We are able to define the scope and the mission better using information, resources and technology. I do think we are making an impact.”

The database is beginning to create a picture of the region’s gang population, which consists of several age groups and reflects the area’s demographics. In Spokane County, there are at least three generations of gangs, said Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Mike Kittilstved, a gang task force member.

“Some of those guys who were selling crack down the block back in the 1980s are old enough to have grandkids,” he said. “Those kids have never known any different.”

Gang activity in Spokane County manifests itself in many ways, from homicides to home invasion robberies to much of the area’s drug trade.

Gangs have also become more bold about marking territory via graffiti, as evidenced in alleys throughout the West Central neighborhood and on billboards in Hillyard.

A big oxycodone ring busted earlier this year is an example of enterprise-level gang activity. The bust netted 62 arrests on conspiracy to distribute drugs and had ties to people in Western Washington and Southern California. Authorities said part of the operation included gang members purchasing property in Los Angeles to launder the money.

The criminal organizations are often involved in transnational drug trafficking, bringing methamphetamine up from Mexico and marijuana down from Canada.

“The Tri-Cities used to be the hub for drug distribution,” Kittilstved said. “That’s moving east to Spokane.”

Many violent crimes committed by gang members are often directed at other members rather than the general public, police officials say. But innocent people are sometimes caught in the crossfire.

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