Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane is asking commissioners for $765,000 to form a gang task force he says is crucial to curbing the spread of Tri-City gang activity.
Most of the money could come from what the county will have left over in December after paying off a jail construction bond, said County Executive David Sparks.
Commissioners learned of the sheriff's request at their Monday meeting when Undersheriff Jerry Hatcher presented a two-year proposal based on what the sheriff said he would need when he first pitched the idea to commissioners in February.
The proposal as outlined would have three deputies and a sergeant assigned full-time to the task force.
Commissioners said they strongly favor creating the task force, and have scheduled a public hearing June 6 when they can approve the money.
Sparks said the 2003 construction bond that was for the jail's third floor is eligible to be paid off in December, and there would be enough left over in the special account for one-time funding for the gang task force.
The account to pay off the bond has been growing steadily with money received through the county's program to rent jail cells to other counties that have no room to house their own inmates.
"It is what we have available that is not needed to pay off the debt," Sparks said.
Hatcher said the idea is for rent-a-cell income to be a continuing source of support for the task force.
Commissioners Jim Beaver and Shon Small, who has 20 years of experience in law enforcement in Benton County, said they were glad to see the sheriff being pro-active in combating the growing gang issue.
"Public safety needs to be the No. 1 priority for any elected officials. We need to get in the game," Beaver said.
Hatcher said while gangs are viewed primarily as involving juveniles, the task force will target adults, too.
Commission Chairman Leo Bowman said putting pressure on gangs is a great idea, but it also could bring added costs to the county for prosecution and incarceration.
"We need to be ready for the way this will impact our juvenile justice system, or our adult system," Bowman said.
Beaver noted that 80 percent of the county budget already is for criminal justice. "We are in the criminal justice business," he said.
Hatcher said there are 26 known gang members at River View High School now.
"We are just trying to keep these youth out of the system," he said.
The sheriff's 18-month strategic plan for the gang task force calls for three months to select team members, develop an operations plan and build partnerships with other law enforcement agencies.
The second, three-to-six months would be for training, developing strategies and coordinating with prosecuting attorneys and court staff.
The next six months would focus on building relationships with community members on a comprehensive approach to include suppression, intervention and prevention.
The sheriff proposes incorporating community centers, street outreach, counseling for substance abuse and mental health, job education, tutoring, grass-roots organizations and religious groups and remedial education into a comprehensive assault on the gang issue.
-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org