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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

‘We have young people dying’: Community leaders, Sheriff’s Office pushing for community program expansion to combat growing gang violence

Aug. 3, 2021 Updated Tue., Aug. 3, 2021 at 12:44 p.m.

Spokane kids keep murdering each other, again and again.

Teenagers, some as young as 13 years old, keep dying. It has to stop, and to stop the deaths we need to expand community programs that provide opportunities and mentors to guide kids down paths that don’t end in drugs, prison and death.

That was the argument Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and community leaders made Monday during a news conference at the Spokane Public Safety Building.

The specific purpose of the news conference was to announce the creation of SAVE, the Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort, an initiative designed to combat escalating gang violence by placing kids in community programs.

“We have young people dying,” Knezovich said. “Our hope is to increase the community support and therefore decrease the violence.”

Knezovich didn’t offer many details on how the Sheriff’s Office will operate differently following the creation of SAVE, but he said his office intends to make an effort to keep more kids out of prison if they’re willing to participate in certain activities.

For instance, a teen might be able to stay out of jail if that teen goes to a trade school, works toward a GED, gets an apprenticeship, plays in a sports league or works with a community mentor, Knezovich and others said at the news conference.

In some instances, Knezovich said, the Sheriff’s Office will work with judges and prosecutors to help keep young people out of prison if they participate in community programs.

Knezovich said that arresting more children won’t end the violence. He said that in his eyes, he sees three ways to prevent kids from joining and staying in gangs.

“Education, jobs and housing: Those are it,” Knezovich said. “SAVE is about helping those kids realize that if you spend the time, if you go through these programs and you drop the lifestyle, you can have all three of these things. Then if we can get them there, we break that cycle.”

Those intent on staying in gangs and unwilling to participate in community programs will be treated like common criminals, Knezovich said.

“If they decide not to – these are people that we have charges on – they decide not to, they go out and continue to sell drugs, continue to sell guns, continue down this lifestyle, and we catch them again, we’re going to drop a house on them,” Knezovich said.

Former Spokane NAACP President Phil Tyler said community leaders can’t stand idle while so many Spokane kids are killing each other.

“One week it’s East Sprague, the next week it’s West Sprague,” Tyler said. “We are witnessing young Black men dying in the streets of Spokane. If Black lives truly matter in this community we must work together with our law enforcement partners, with our community partners, with our schools, with our neighborhoods.”

Gang intervention specialist William Davis grew up in gangs. He said he helped found the Grape Street Watts Crips in 1963 and the Compton Crips in 1966.

“I helped start all the problems that they’re talking about,” Davis said.

Davis said he moved to Spokane in 2016 and quickly recognized that the region had a severe, growing gang problem.

The key to breaking the gang cycle is to make children feel loved, Davis said.

“We’ve got to stop kids thinking that their parents don’t like them, teachers don’t like them, society don’t like them, church don’t like them,” he said. “Our kids are in the mindset that adults don’t care.”

“Nobody raises a shooter,” Davis said. “They grow into being shooters, because something happened and they get disconnected.”

Sean Lizama, of Milestone Ministries and Milestone Squadcast, grew up in gangs, too. He agreed with Davis, and argued that getting kids into more community programs – where they’ll find mentors and be exposed to positive influences – is essential in order to stop gang violence.

“If you don’t feel loved, you have no value for life,” Lizama said. “There’s no problem to taking a life, there’s no problem to lose your life for the gang – they’re the only love you get, even if it’s distorted.”

If Spokane leaders don’t do more to end gang violence now, the city will lose a generation of children, Lizama said.

“Satan is out here destroying another generation right before our eyes and we’re not doing anything about it,” he said.

Something has to change today, or this generation of children will be lost, Davis said.

“We have to catch it now,” he said. “We can’t keep waiting.”

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