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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘A multilayered issue’: Woodward, Spokane police to form task force aimed at rise in gun violence

A few days after four people were wounded in two separate shootings this past weekend, members of the Spokane City Council looked to Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl for answers to the city’s apparent rise in gun violence.

Finding those solutions will take a community effort, however, as evidenced by a new task force Meidl is helping put together at Mayor Nadine Woodward’s request.

It’s remains unclear at this point who might serve on the mayor’s task force or when it will be up and running.

Whatever form the task force takes, Woodward said she hopes the groups can come up with ideas similar to Seattle’s “High Utilizer” initiative.

As part of the program, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office is aiming to aggregate numerous misdemeanors into felony charges for 118 people suspected of committing more than 2,400 misdemeanors in the last five years, according to the Seattle Times.

“We have, I believe, the same situation here,” Woodward said. “I think there’s a small number of chronic offenders who are committing the majority of quality of life crimes, the business property crimes, the car thefts and car prowlings and all those kinds of things, and we need to go after that.”

Meidl has met with department heads, crime analysts and others to lay out an initial plan for a task force, said police spokesperson Julie Humphreys, adding that the police department is committed to working with community and criminal justice partners toward innovative solutions.

There were 40 shootings in Spokane in the first three months of 2022, according to the Spokane Police Department, on pace to eclipse the 151 shootings recorded last year. Eighteen of those 40 were classified as drive-by shootings, up from 10 over the same time period last year.

April has followed the trend.

This a few days after a Saturday that saw three people seriously injured during a reported drive-by shooting at Lucky’s Irish Pub on West Sprague Avenue and a man shot twice in a separate shooting on East Queen Avenue. Another man was shot and killed early Tuesday morning in north Spokane near Maxwell Avenue and Lincoln Street.

Spokane Police recorded 91 shootings in 2020 and 52 in 2019.

There’s no one reason for the rise in the gun violence throughout the city, Meidl said Monday during the council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee meeting.

“The huge spike we’ve seen has been, we believe, driven largely by gangs – one gang versus another gang – but you always have these other shootings that have always occurred,” he said. “It can be anything from domestic violence to drugs to arguments to just disagreements. It runs the full gamut.”

While Spokane’s gangs first emerged around the 1980s, most involved nowadays are second- or third-generation members who were born in Spokane and come from gang-impacted areas, said Officer Adam Valdez, a member of the Spokane Regional Safe Streets Task Force.

Valdez said he has spoken to people as old as 25 and as young as 9 or 10, noting the Safe Streets Task Force has largely seen middle- or high-school youths looking for this lifestyle.

Gang-on-gang violence most often occurs due to rivalries, drug-related issues or feuds old enough for some younger members to not understand, Valdez said.

A lot of violent conflicts start on the internet, sometimes from perceived insults on social media. Some members believe they’re destined for either death or prison, both Valdez and Meidl said.

“When you’re trying to deal with that and work through that with them, it takes a community to wrap around them,” Meidl said.

Valdez added, “If kids want out of the lifestyle, there’s ways to get out.”

Whereas the gangs of old would have confrontations or possibly a fight in the event of a conflict, Valdez said today’s youths more quickly “have an immediate and violent reaction.”

And while civilian targets are “pretty rare,” there’s always a concern of crossfire between gangs, such as in a drive-by, Valdez said.

“Nowadays, these younger ones will immediately have no problem pulling out a gun or flashing a gun or shooting at a rival because they want to get that street cred,” Valdez said. “Multiple young gang members tell me they don’t have an issue shooting at somebody or killing somebody because they know they don’t get a lot of time, and once they come out, they get a street cred.”

Gangs “generally go where the moneymaking is”; nowadays, that’s drugs, human trafficking and gun sales, Valdez said.

Woodward said she sees the task force working in tandem with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s Operation Engage, a program that has identified the Spokane region as one of 11 crisis areas for combatting drug crime, given the significant spike in fentanyl seizures.

“Spokane is a narcotics distribution hub for drugs coming over the border into Spokane because of our proximity to Canada but also I-90, so that distribution can go east from here,” Woodward said. “It’s a problem, but it is fueling a lot of shootings that we’re experiencing right now.”

The Spokane Police Department has also noticed a rising trend in the number of arrests for unlawful possession of a firearm, with many of those arrests involving convicted felons, Meidl said.

Police have made 30 arrests to date in 2022 for unlawful possession of a firearm. The police department made 89 such arrests through all of last year.

While officers are making arrests for these types of charges, Meidl said the defendants are often released on their own recognizance by the courts shortly after they are booked. As a result, Meidl said he doesn’t believe the criminal justice system is “sending the right message.”

“We need accountability in our courts as well,” Woodward said. “It’s a multilayered issue that we continue to work on.”