Study: Tri-Cities lacks resources to fight gang problem

The unmistakable sound of a gun firing rang out behind Jose as he casually walked in a Pasco alley earlier this month.

It was broad daylight in a populated part of town, but when a gang member spots a rival, all bets are off.

Jose ran for cover as three more shots sounded — pop, pop, pop. In a flash, a summer afternoon walk turned into a brush with death for the 18-year-old, who asked that his full name not be used.

The bullets, likely fired by another gang member, missed the teen. But the shooting is an example of the dangerous gang problem in the Tri-Cities.

“People just really don’t understand what goes on,” said Jose, who left his gang after serving a lengthy stint in juvenile jail. He now has a job and is thinking about going back to school.

The Tri-Cities is suspected to be home to at least 25 violent gangs, but the area lacks programs and outreach organizations dedicated to helping gang members change their lives, according to a new study.

The report — considered the first-ever comprehensive assessment of gangs in the area — recently was released to provide agencies and officials in the Tri-Cities with data to help create a new model to attack the problem.

A national expert on gangs, Dr. Charles Katz of Arizona State University, authored the study. He analyzed data collected from police departments, school districts, incarcerated youths and community members.

It was funded by the state through a grant awarded in 2013 to F.I.R.M.E., a gang outreach program started by Pasco pastor and former gang affiliate Jesse Campos, who is no longer with the organization.

A majority of resources during the years have been dedicated to crime enforcement to combat gang violence, the study said. But little has been done outside of law enforcement programs, and outreach led by Campos, to prevent kids from joining gangs or helping them find a way out.

Twelve organizations in Benton and Franklin counties provide services to at-risk youths, the study said. Only programs offered by Campos, who runs gang outreach out of The River Church in Pasco, specifically target gang members or those considering joining a gang.

“Outreach is at bare minimum. Nobody is going to go to a Boys and Girls Club or a YMCA,” Campos said. “The kids we deal with, who are high risk, are not going to do that. There’s got to be other alternatives out there.”

The study identified almost 300 gang members in Benton and Franklin counties. However, law enforcement officials and Campos say the actual number of gang members and affiliates in the area is between 1,200 and 1,500.

School officials reported there are more than 150 gang members in up to eight gangs in area high schools and middle schools, the study said.

Pasco High School reported 61 gang members, New Horizons High School had 34 and Kamiakin High School counted 26, the study said. School officials at Park Middle School reported 30 gang members. There were 25 or fewer gang members at each of the other schools in the area.

Katz and his team found schools in the Tri-Cities take a “particularly aggressive” approach to dealing with students who are gang members, the study said. School districts often expel gang-affiliated students, possibly to make it appear gang problems don’t exist.

Pasco Superintendent Saundra Hill strongly disagrees with the notion that school officials push kids out simply because they are gang affiliated.

Hill said school officials don’t deny there is a gang problem and have worked proactively to help students involved in the streets.

“We don’t treat gang members any different than we treat any other students when it comes to disciplinary issues,” she said.

Campos told the Herald that gang members are routinely judged by school officials and sometimes kicked out simply because they are associated with gangs.

“When they see a gang member, their first approach is, ‘You’re not going to be here because you’re going to be a harm to the school,’ ” he said. “The kids feel like failures.”

The study detailed where gang members live in the Tri-Cities and what sections of cities are considered problem areas.

A majority live in Pasco and Kennewick, with Pasco being the city with the highest risk for gang problems, the study said. The areas between Highway 395 and 14th Avenue, and Interstate 182 and Court Street were deemed the most problematic.

The areas with the next-highest population of gang members were unincorporated Benton County, Richland and Prosser. A significant number of the gangs are composed of mostly males between the ages of 12 and 25.

Gang members on probation are more likely to live in Pasco and Kennewick, and juveniles on probation who live outside of the two cities are significantly less likely to be involved in gangs.

Police chiefs in Pasco and Kennewick say the data confirms the sections of their towns that law enforcement officials know are problem areas. It also reaffirmed the need to fight gangs in ways other than just crime enforcement.

“We do great at the law enforcement side, but that’s not doing anything with prevention,” said Bob Metzger, Pasco police chief, who is on the board of F.I.R.M.E. “I’m hoping the counties will pick that up and move forward with the prevention side of things.”

While the study sheds a light on problems associated with gang cultures, it also offers suggestions for city and county officials to use as they move toward building a comprehensive model to combat gangs.

Based on one of the suggestions, a steering committee of officials from cities and both counties, law enforcement, prosecutors, the juvenile justice department, a judge and community agencies will be put together, said Jerome Delvin, Benton County commissioner.

The group’s job would be to figure out the best way to to implement the model in both counties. Delvin expects the committee to be formed soon, he said.

The public safety sales tax passed in 2014 in Benton County is expected to generate between $500,000 and $800,000 that could be spent annually on gang-related programs, officials said.

“I don’t know too many counties across the state that have budgeted over $800,000 a year to address a problem in their community,” said Ken Hohenberg, Kennewick police chief.

Campos would like to see some of the money spent on vocational schools, outreach workers with a history in the gang life, parent training, mental health services and a tattoo removal program.

“I ask guys in gangs, ‘What is it that I can give you to stop banging or selling dope or doing sex trafficking?’ ” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the guys will say, ‘Give me a job.’ ”