Gang violence is flaring. And Benton County’s top cops say this could help crush it

Security cameras show gang suspects following victim

Home security cameras show final moments leading up to May 5 fatal shooting of Andrea Nunez, 20, in the 700 block of East Seventh Avenue in Kennewick.
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Home security cameras show final moments leading up to May 5 fatal shooting of Andrea Nunez, 20, in the 700 block of East Seventh Avenue in Kennewick.

Alarmed by the gang-related murder of a pregnant 20-year-old and a flareup of drive-by shootings, Benton County’s top cops say they need more help.

Specifically, they say an infusion from the county’s $12.7 million crime-fighting fund could fight back the gang flareup.

The Benton County sheriff and Kennewick police chief have teamed up to restart the county’s law and justice council. The first meeting is May 29.

The council will identify what’s needed and make recommendations to the Benton County Commission.

“The violence that popped up in Kennewick could have popped up anywhere,” said Police Chief Ken Hohenberg.

“I appreciate the commissioners wanting to be good stewards of the money coming into the county,” he said, adding, “We are at a critical tipping point. We are fortunate to have the public safety sales tax as an opportunity.”

Sheriff Jerry Hatcher agrees the Tri-Cities has mounted a solid resistance to gangs, but the threat keeps growing.

“You’ve seen an uptick in gang activity despite additional law enforcement,” he said. “We’re constantly fighting gang-related problems.”

A side wall memorial for Andrea Nunez, who was shot by a gang in Kennewick. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Public safety sales tax

Benton County voters approved a sales tax bump starting in 2014 to combat crime, specifically gangs, through a three-tenths of a percent sales tax.

The money pays for dozens of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, mental health court activities and youth programs.

Benton County, which receives 60 percent of the sales tax money, anticipates a $12.7 million balance from its share in the 2019-2020 budget cycle.

Hohenberg plans to recommend budgeting $150,000 annually to the Tri-Cities Metro Drug Task Force, a regional effort that combats gang activity by tackling the illegal drug trade.

It’s not clear if or when the county commissioners will consider any recommendations of the revived law and justice council. A similar council made original recommendations when the measure was before voters.

Shon Small, chairman of the county commission and a former sheriff’s deputy, did not respond to phone and email messages from the Herald about the revived law and justice council and whether the commission will allow it to make recommendations.

Both Hohenberg and Hatcher say the Metro task force is long overdue to receive money from the public safety fund.

Money from a Benton County public safety tax is meant to help add police, bolster gang and crime prevention, provide money for a mental health court and continue the drug task force. Tri-City Herald file

The sales tax ballot language specifically identified the task force as a candidate for funding — $400,000 annually to cover an additional detective, a prosecutor, overhead expenses and money for drug buys.

Only the prosecutor has been funded.

Hohenberg, the public face of the pro-sales tax campaign at the time, said he wants to fulfill his promise to voters by adding $150,000 to the Metro budget.

“We are just asking for operational money to go out there and be effective. It is the only regional task force out there combating drug activity and related violence. It is critical to keeping the Tri-Cities safe,” Hohenberg said.

Local law enforcement agencies assign officers to the task force while covering their salaries and related costs. But it takes more than that to be effective, he said.

The task force was awarded a federal Byrne grant, but it has been held up by a national fight over sanctuary cities.

Benton and Franklin counties, along with the four cities, each pay $11,500 to cover the cost. Added funds will help it respond to the rising number of incidents, police say.

What is happening?

Kennewick estimates about 200 people are currently active in about 20 gangs in Kennewick. Numbers from Pasco and Richland weren’t immediately available.

Murder suspect Adrian Mendoza, 17, appears before Judge Sam Swanberg in Benton County Superior Court for a first-degree murder charge in the shooting death of Andrea Nunez. Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller argues for a $500,000 bail.

Even though gang members and wannabes make up a relatively small percentage of the city’s population, they generate enough problems for all of the cities and counties to dedicate officers to deal with them, police say.

The most active members generally start in their young teens, some joining as early as middle school, and they stay active into early adulthood, explained Kennewick Sgt. Aaron Clem.

With some, they’re turning to the gang to replace the support they’re missing at home. Others follow their parents or other relatives, he said.

The recent spike in gang activity started with an uptick in graffiti and minor assaults as a group of newer gang members are trying to make a name for themselves, say police. And the crimes have escalated.

Friends and family release balloons to honor Andrea Nunez, 20, who was shot and killed in Kennewick.

In the weeks before last weekend’s deadly slaying of Andrea Nunez, 20, Kennewick police were called to investigate four drive-by shootings.

One involved rifle shots into a Kennewick apartment building when people were asleep inside, and another wounded a Kennewick teen sitting in her car at a park.

While they were all gang-related, they shared little else in common, said police.

Norteno and Sureno members, much like Crips, are umbrella terms for gang groups, and even within these gangs there can be cliques of people who fight each other, say police. All of them migrated north from California.

Police say gangs, such as the Gangster Disciple Killers, Crips, Surenos and 18th Street members, initially followed racial lines, but that distinction has faded.

While most of the local gang members are homegrown, they ask for support from places like Yakima or Moses Lake, Clem said.

Ten suspects have been arrested in the most recent gang-related shootings and a warrant was issued for another.

The recent successes by Kennewick police in catching gang members or affiliates is not a fluke, Hohenberg said.

Since the department started the criminal apprehension unit in 2004, the team averages 1,000 arrests per year.

Watchful residents are a necessary component to helping solve the issue.

Whether it’s seeing graffiti on a building or a group that looks suspicious, Clem said people should call 509-628-0333 and report it.

Politics and taxes

It isn’t the first time Hatcher and Hohenberg have asked Benton County to dip into its public safety fund to bolster law enforcement.

The fund came under fire last year when Kennewick, which manages the Metro task force, asked the county to cover the missing Bryre grant.

When it didn’t, the the mayors of Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser protested the county’s then-$14 million savings account could be viewed as a breach of faith by voters. The tax expires in 2024 unless voters reapprove it.

The commission invited the community to submit funding requests. It received $36 million in requests from 33 public and private agencies.

The deputy county manager and communications officer, advised by the prosecutor’s office, reviewed the applications and made the final recommendations to the commission.

The county awarded public safety money to Boys & Girls Club programs in Prosser and Kennewick, to anti-gang programs and to a church-based sex trafficking ministry.

Hohenberg and Hatcher said they were frustrated to see the public safety tax “diluted.” Hatcher complained law enforcement was excluded from the advisory group.

“That was a poor model,” he said.

Shyanne Palmus, spokeswoman for the commissioner’s office, confirmed law enforcement was not part of the review.

“(T)he main purpose of that review process was to assess the requests’ applicability to the ballot title (legal team) and financial viability (finance team),” she said in a written statement to the Herald.

Hatcher said the 25- to 30-member law and justice council’s members include elected officials, prosecutors, law enforcement, the courts, judges, city officials and community members.

“The people who are working in that area need to be part of the process. The law and justice council includes us in the process,” he said.

Why they’re acting now

The county’s top law enforcement officers said they’ve discussed reviving the council for the past year.

The issues came up again recently after the Benton County Republican Party asked the commission to consider asking voters for permission to spend surplus public safety money on ambulances and other fire gear.

Bill Berkman, chair of the local political party, said if voters agreed, rural fire districts would be able to request money from the same fund only if law enforcement requests had been met and the fund had at least $2.5 million.

Berkman pledged to push the idea despite opposition from Hatcher and Hohenberg, who want the money steered toward law enforcement, rather than fire fighting efforts.

The commission took no action, but asked the county attorney to investigate the idea for possible discussion in the future.

It’s not clear when the law and justice council could have its own request on the gang problem ready for Benton County.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.
Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.