Crime

Tri-Cities gang violence was getting out of hand. Here’s how police are taking action

Operation Safe Streets 2 sweeps through Tri-Cities

Sgt. Chris Littrell of the Kennewick Police Department explains how Operation Safe Streets 2 is intended to sweep up people with criminal warrants to potentially reduce gang violence and other illegal activity.
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Sgt. Chris Littrell of the Kennewick Police Department explains how Operation Safe Streets 2 is intended to sweep up people with criminal warrants to potentially reduce gang violence and other illegal activity.

Tri-Cities police continue to turn up the heat on gangs even as the memory of a series of gang-related shootings this spring begins to fade.

Kennewick, Richland and Pasco police along with Benton County sheriff’s deputies swept through the area Tuesday morning looking for 32 suspected gang members or gang associates. All of those people were wanted for failing to show up to court or not following their sentences.

Operation Safe Streets 2 is the sequel to a similar sweep that rounded up 15 people in mid-May. That crackdown followed a flare-up in violence linked to gangs, including the deadly predawn shooting of a pregnant 20-year-old woman in a Kennewick street.

Two 17-year-olds are facing charges in connection to the shooting, and police are continuing to look for a 22-year-old man linked to the case.

Tuesday’s sweep was aimed at keeping the pressure up in the hope there won’t be a resurgence of gang violence, said Lt. Aaron Clem.

“What we want to do is to make an impression on the gangs that we’re not going to accept the kind of behavior that we had earlier this spring,” he said. “I anticipate that we’ll probably do something later this summer or the fall.”

Gang activity

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Members of the Kennewick Police Department’s Criminal Apprehension Team take Jimmy Lee Rodriguez into custody at a house in the 3500 block of South Garfield Street during Tuesday’s Operation Safe Streets II. Watch a video at: tricityherald.com/video Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Sgt. Chris Littrell heads up Kennewick’s Criminal Apprehension Team. Among its other responsibilities, the team is responsible for investigating gang crime. It’s something that the veteran of the department has seen come back around since he started.

He helped lead these kinds of sweeps when he was the gang detective in the late 2000s. The city stopped doing them in 2012, after authorities began seeing a drop-off in the amount of violence.

The sweeps are a successful tool in curbing gang activity, Littrell said. Even after the May sweep, police heard the message did get through to local gangs.

“Just about every time we’ve done these sweeps, we hear of the message that it’s sending,” he said. “If people want to be law-abiding citizens, we don’t care about their past. ... But if they’re going to continue to be involved in criminal gang activity, then we’re going to hold them accountable.”

TRI_Sweephousecheck
Kennewick Police officers check a residence in the 3500 block of South Garfield Street for a wanted person during Tuesday’s Operation Safe Streets II criminal roundup sweep throughout the Tri-Cities. Watch a video at: tricityherald.com/video Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Jimmy Lee Rodriguez, 42, was one of the people picked up in Tuesday’s raid. The Kennewick resident’s criminal history dates back to the early 1990s, and he continues to not follow the terms of his criminal sentence. He was picked up in the previous sweep for unlawfully possessing a firearm.

Littrell’s team also stopped by some recent graffiti scrawled on the side of a Gum Street business. The message had some numbers related to rival cliques crossed out and the initials of their gang. Teams from the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Detention Center will come out to paint over the tags.

It’s important that the markings are removed, because gang graffiti attracts more graffiti and can lead to escalating issues between gangs.

A transient group

Before the law enforcement teams left the Kennewick police station early Tuesday morning, they were already crossing off names from their list. Many were already in jail or prison in another state.

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A member of the Kennewick Police Department Criminal Apprehension Team takes Travis Lee Harden into custody. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The teams arrested six people during the sweep. One of those was not in a gang or affiliated with one.

Lots of gang members frequently move around. They don’t have a permanent phone number, rental agreements or other ways to track them, Litterell said.

“It’s nonstop,” he said. “With some of these guys, it’s so hard. They have some kind of prepaid phone that they keep for a while, then it runs out of minutes, and then they throw it away. ... It’s not uncommon for us to go somewhere looking for one person and then all of the sudden find three or four more people.”

The detectives in all of the agencies need a level of expertise to track people involved in gangs. They know many of them on sight.

Sweep traffic stop
Members of the Kennewick Police Department’s Criminal Apprehension Team prepare to take Travis Lee Harden into custody following a traffic stop on Sacajawea Park Road off Highway 12 near Pasco. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Police plan to have another sweep to see if they can find more people on their wanted list. Clem said it was a successful operation.

“These people move around quite a bit, so there’s always going to be locations that we go to and there’s not going to be anybody there,” he said. “Even though we’re not arresting that many, we’re still sending the message to these people that we’re going to continue to do this.”

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.
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