Benton sheriff sets sights on curbing gangs

By John Trumbo, Herald staff writerMarch 1, 2011 

Sheriff Steve Keane said Benton County needs an anti-gang team to be ready for criminal gangs as they move into the Tri-Cities.

An estimated 1,000 gang members representing 30 gangs already are here, Keane said.

The sheriff told county commissioners Monday that it would cost $370,719 to assemble a team of five sheriff's officers, including a supervising sergeant, to be ready for the inevitable gang invasion.

The sheriff said two of his officers did an assessment of the gang problem in Yakima County communities to get an idea of what to expect in Benton County.

They learned:

* Half of Sunnyside's police resources are used to combat gang activities.

* Yakima had 17 gang-related homicides in 2010, while the Tri-Cities had one suspected gang-related homicide.

* There were 52 drive-by shootings in the Lower Valley, not including Yakima, last year. Benton and Franklin counties had 15.

* Yakima County spends $7.3 million a year housing gang members in its jail, which includes about 225 gang-related inmates on any given day. Benton County's annual jail spends about $2.5 million to house about 50 gang members a day.

* Sunnyside Hospital incurred about $4 million in indigent care expenses treating victims of 39 gunshot victims in 2010, most of which were believed to be the result of gang activity.

While the problem in Benton County isn't near what it is in Yakima or other Lower Valley communities, Keane said the gangs are moving east toward the Tri-Cities.

To wait until the gang problem is evident is too late, he said.

"The biggest threat to our community is gangs, for safety and the (other) affects to our communities. It is a growing problem," the sheriff said.

Keane said Yakima County's communities are looking for any way possible to push the gang activity out of their areas, which could bring the problem to Benton County.

"So with more pressure on gangs in Yakima, they might come here?" Commission Chairman Leo Bowman asked.

"Yes, that is expected," said Keane, noting that Sunnyside officials are trying to use a housing law that would prevent known gang members from being able to rent housing in the city.

"Violent gangs are already here. How do we respond before it's too late?" Keane asked.

He said the gang team would be a start.

It would have one sergeant and a deputy recruited from current employees, plus three deputies to be hired, and two cars bought specifically for the team.

"A lot of experience and oversight is needed. (The team) has to be able to move quickly in teams of two," the sheriff said.

Keane said the offensive move against gangs will be a comprehensive approach to intervene, suppress and prevent gang activity. And it will rely on community partnerships to develop resources for getting people out of gangs through education and encouragement.

Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg said a gang team is the right approach because his department has seen success by being proactive on gang-related crime.

"We hear that gang members don't like coming to Kennewick because we have a reputation of arresting them," Hohenberg told the commissioners.

Keane's request for the gang team funding comes two months after he took office.

It also is the first bid for big dollars since the commissioners approved a pared-down biennial budget late last year after denying numerous funding requests from county department heads.

Commissioner Jim Beaver said the gang team concept is a priority deserving attention.

"My next discussion will be with (County Administrator) David Sparks (to find the money)," Beaver said.

"The time to do something is now. The price of doing nothing will far exceed the cost of the gang team," Keane said.

Commissioner Shon Small, who took office in January, supported the idea.

"I know this is the right thing to do," he said.

No action was taken Monday to pay for the gang team.

Keane said he will work with the county's financial analysts to see what can be done, recognizing that "this is expensive and budgets are short."

The sheriff added, "Even if I don't get the funding, I feel it is my responsibility to let the commissioners know."

-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com

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