Crackdown in Yakima may be sending more gangs to Pasco

By Melissa Sanchez, Yakima Herald-Republic July 28, 2009 

As if gangs aren't causing enough trouble around here, Pasco's police chief is blaming Yakima Valley criminals for a spike in gang-related violence in the Tri-Cities.

Stepped-up law enforcement in the Yakima area "has started to displace some of these gang members," said Pasco Chief Denis Austin. "Our officers are stopping members from Mabton, Grandview and Yakima in this area.

"So we made an assumption that some impact up there is displacing some of these people."

Austin's comments last week indicate a need for better and faster interagency sharing of information, Yakima Police Chief Sam Granato said.

"Pasco should be communicating with us and letting us know what to look out for," Granato said. "My job is to drive crime out of Yakima ... and what those jurisdictions need to do is be on board with us and do the same thing.

"Crime is going to be wherever the police aren't, or where the laws are lax."

Pasco is one of the fastest-growing communities in Washington, and gang crime has grown steadily there since 2002, when 342 gang-related incidents were reported.

Last year that number was 512 incidents, said David Reardon, crime analyst for the police department. And monthly totals so far this year indicate the problem is getting slightly worse.

Pasco averages two violent gang crimes a month, but had six in May and three in June. In April, the city saw its first gang-related homicide since 1996.

Reardon said that Pasco doesn't formally track where people arrested there are from. And the numbers are nowhere near the city's high of 1,474 gang incidents in 1995.

Austin said he's relying on anecdotal evidence from cops -- and the understanding that gang members tend to be mobile.

"They could live in Yakima today and live in Kennewick tomorrow," he said. "That's part of that process of pushing them out of the community. They don't want police to know who they are, what car they drive, who their girlfriend is.

"But the more light we shine on them, the better."

The formation of the Yakima Police Department's Gang Enforcement Team shortly after Granato became chief in 2003 has been widely viewed as causing a drop in violence in Yakima -- but pushed gang activity further into the Lower Valley.

In response, earlier this year local law enforcement agencies teamed up with federal and state authorities to form the Violent Crimes Task Force.

The task force is commanded by Yakima County Chief Criminal Deputy Ed Campbell, who agreed with Austin that gang members are mobile. Their families -- many of the most prolific troublemakers are teenagers -- move for work or to get a fresh start.

Despite a continued decline in the county's overall crime rate, a spike in gang violence in the Yakima Valley proves the region's gang problems are far from over, he said.

Last week, a Yakima County sheriff's deputy was ambushed by an alleged gang member in the rural community of Outlook. The deputy suffered a gunshot wound to the hip while investigating reports of gunfire in the dark. He is expected to recover.

A 16-year-old boy who police say was trying to "earn his stripes" is in custody.

"We're getting very aggressive in our efforts to deal with the gangs," Campbell said. "However, I don't know that we're driving people out. I don't have any specific intelligence that they're moving from one place to another, or why they're moving."

Granato, meanwhile, says the task force has improved interagency communication some -- but there's still a lot to be done.

"I don't want them to wait on information. Get it out quicker," Granato said.

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