Days after multiple drive-by shootings rocked the Spokane community, local elected officials and law enforcement leaders affirmed their commitment at a news conference Thursday to targeting gang and violent crime.
“The violence absolutely has to stop,” Mayor Nadine Woodward said.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich estimates there are between 850 and 1,500 “gang members” in the county. That estimate was based on his experience and investigative work by deputies, the Sheriff’s Office said.
On Sunday, Spokane Police Officer Kris Honaker was shot while responding to a drive-by shooting. Honaker has since been released from the hospital, and two felons remain in jail after being arrested in connection with the shooting.
In a separate incident, two teens were shot after a fight broke out in northwest Spokane Wednesday, adding to the 81 shootings reported by Spokane law enforcement since the start of the year.
Officials on Thursday tied the increase in crimes to gang activity.
The Spokane Police Department on Thursday said it does not track the specific number of people affiliated with gangs within city limits.
Gang violence has been an ongoing issue in Spokane. Knezovich and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl warned at a news conference last April of an increase in gang shootings. In August, Knezovich announced the creation of SAVE, the Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort, an initiative designed to combat escalating gang violence by placing kids in community programs.
The root of gun violence, Knezovich said, is gangs and drugs, which he and the U.S. Marshals Service Violent Crimes Task Force, plan to target.
“Today, if you’re a gang member, if you’re a drug dealer, if you’re going to commit violent crimes in Spokane County, you’re going to be arrested,” Knezovich said Thursday. “You’re going to be put in jail.”
The Spokane County commissioners and Spokane Valley Mayor Pam Haley hope to give the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office $200,000 to cover overtime costs related to the effort, they announced at the news conference.
“Along with my fellow commissioners, our highest priority is to ensure law enforcement has the additional resources they need,” Commissioner Mary Kuney said.
Commissioner Al French encouraged the community to be involved by tipping off police when they witness something suspicious.
“If you see something, say something,” French said. “Call Crime Check. Any lead can be a pathway to arresting somebody that would do harm to you, your family or law enforcement officers.”
The newly created Violent Crime Task Force at the Spokane Police Department will target repeat offenders in hopes of building stronger cases against them that carry longer sentences, Woodward said.
“This is not who we are as a community,” Woodward said of the recent string of shootings. “And I know this is not who we want to be.”
Knezovich blamed judges and the state Legislature for being soft on violent criminals.
“You passed laws that make it impossible for us to talk to young, violent thugs that are killing each other,” Knezovich said. “You pass laws that are letting people out of jail without doing their time.”
A law that went into effect on Jan. 1 requires law enforcement provide juveniles access to an attorney before the child is interrogated, detained or asked to consent to an evidentiary search of their property.
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell agreed with Knezovich.
“The Legislature has been taking tools, year by year, away from police and away from prosecutors, in terms of sentencing options,” Haskell said.
He decried efforts to eliminate life without the possibility of parole and pledged his office’s continued legal advice to local law enforcement agencies.
Haskell, Knezovich and Meidl have opposed police reform for years, along with Supreme Court decisions including the Blake decision that struck down Washington’s drug possession law. Haskell, specifically, has expressed doubts about the effectiveness of supported release programs that give judges the ability to connect nonviolent offenders with community services in lieu of jail.
Haskell and the Spokane County commissioners, all Republicans, are up for re-election this year. The local party is pushing a campaign message that has positioned Republicans as better than Democrats to address crime, and no Democrats appeared at Thursday’s news conference.
City Council President Breean Beggs, who ran against Haskell as a Democrat in 2014 before earning a seat on Spokane’s City Council, said he was not invited to participate in Thursday’s news conference. Spokane City Council Member Betsy Wilkerson said she was not informed until early Thursday afternoon of the news conference.
Knezovich, who isn’t running for re-election as sheriff, has been among the most vocal against reforms pushed through by the state’s Democrat-controlled legislature.
“You are failing your communities,” Knezovich said of legislators and judges. “This is on you.”
Staff writer Greg Mason contributed to this report.