Most of the time when we talk about gangs, it’s because something bad has already happened.
With at least 25 violent gangs operating in the community with an estimated 1,500 gang members, trouble is always brewing.
Law enforcement here has taken a hard line on gangs, forming a task force with members from all jurisdictions and conducting sweeps for those with outstanding warrants. It’s key that all departments participate because gang activity does not contain itself to the limits of one city or county.
A recent study says the Tri-Cities lack the kind of outreach programming needed to help gang members leave that life behind and become productive citizens.
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The report is thought to be the first comprehensive study of gangs in the region and was written by a national expert on gangs from Arizona State University. The study used information from police departments, school districts, juveniles in detention and community members to draw its conclusions.
A gang outreach program here, F.I.R.M.E., which stands for Finding, Impacting, Redirecting gangs through Mentorship and Education, received a grant to pay for the study.
The findings show that most of the resources in the Tri-Cities are tied to law enforcement work to combat gangs committing crimes, but little effort exists to prevent youngsters from joining gangs or to provide a path for them to exit gangs.
We have a dozen organizations in our two counties providing services for at-risk youth, but only a very few that reach out to gang members or provide them with resources to reinvent their circumstances. Programs organized by Jesse Campos, a Pasco pastor who ties to gang life in his younger days, are the only ones that reach that far.
Campos says kids at risk of joining gangs or those seeking a way out won’t seek out traditional organizations like the Boys & Girls Club or YMCA for help. A different approach is needed to reach these kids.
The study says area schools reported 150 students in high school and middle school who are affiliated with eight gangs. Pasco High School reported 61 and Kennewick’s Park Middle School 30. New Horizons, a Pasco alternative school, has 34.
The study also offered ideas for city and county officials to create a more comprehensive approach to deal with gangs. A bicounty steering committee will be formed to create a plan to implement that model. As with all proactive outreach programs, funding will be an issue.
Benton County has the benefit of a public safety tax that will generate at least $500,000 annually to be spent specifically on gang-related issues. Franklin County needs to find a way to dedicate funds to the effort too.
Campos sees the need for vocational schools, outreach workers who are former gang members, training for parents, mental health services and a program to remove gang tattoos. Those all sound like worthy efforts. These kids and young adults need role models they can relate to and a course of action that can help them move on to better lives.