The Benton County Gang Enforcement Team has been making house calls, rounding up known gang members and taking down names of new recruits.
Contacting known gang members in person is making a difference in curbing gang growth, Sheriff Steve Keane told county commissioners Tuesday.
"We want to let them know we are out there, and when they can expect us to hold them accountable. And we will be there to help them if they want out," he said.
The report from the sheriff and Sgt. Carlos Trevino said the personal visits to homes of gang members have led to more arrests, and made parents, mobile home park owners and managers, and school officials more aware of the stepped up enforcement.
"The only way to suppress crime is to target areas of activity," Keane said.
Trevino said there were 33 gang-related calls for service in January and February in Benton County, with 20 felony arrests, 36 misdemeanor arrests and four weapons seized.
Trevino said there has been no noticeable increase in gang activity, and the east end of the county has evidence of gangs.
"We do graffiti checks three to four times a week," the sergeant said, noting that two recent graffiti incidents in Prosser were solved within a week and the offender went to jail.
The five-member gang team now has a crime analyst, who helps identify trends by studying activities and signs in neighboring communities and counties.
"By working with other jurisdictions in Yakima, Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities we have a huge network with other officers involved with gangs. It is really helping us out quite a bit," Trevino said.
Dealing with gang issues inside the jail also is especially difficult, the sheriff said.
"We have gang assaults in jail every single day. But it is hard to prosecute because there's an unwritten code of gang members not cooperating with authorities," Keane said.
"You'd be amazed at the city within the city inside the jail," the sheriff said, noting that there are too many gangs represented inside the jail and not enough space to keep them separated from each other.
Opportunities for attack will occur, and if a gang member doesn't attack, his own gang will beat him as punishment, Keane said.
"I want to get to the point where we establish relationships with other organizations in the community, such as Teen Challenge. Those guys talk the gang language and can help," Keane said.
Teen Challenge is a nonprofit that helps teens and young men break substance abuse addictions.
Trevino said the gang team will continue to build contacts throughout the community, in neighborhoods, mobile home parks and with gang members' parents.
The team also is seeking funding through multi-jurisdictional grants with Kennewick and Richland and BNSF Railway Co.
"We really want to get ahead of this thing," Keane said.
The commissioners authorized the gang team task force last year, providing $764,427 to pay for salaries, benefits, insurance, operations, computer operations and vehicles to keep it running for two years.
Most of the county funding came from savings the county obtained in paying off jail construction bonds ahead of time by December 2011.