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Gang violence: South King County enters long fight

King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer listens to a comment from Rashad Norris at the Oct. 7 forum at Thomas Jefferson High School. Federal Way Police Chief Brian Wilson, Auburn Police Chief Bob Lee and Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas are shown seated. - Courtesy photo
King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer listens to a comment from Rashad Norris at the Oct. 7 forum at Thomas Jefferson High School. Federal Way Police Chief Brian Wilson, Auburn Police Chief Bob Lee and Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas are shown seated.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

As the population grows in South King County, so does the proliferation of gangs and related criminal activity.

Gangs are associated with making money through illegal activities. Examples include anything from burglaries and theft to selling drugs and firearms. Disputes among rival gangs often result in violence and death.

The July 23 shooting at a car show in Kent, in which 12 people were injured, served as a wake-up call for gang violence in King County. Six alleged gang members were eventually arrested following an extensive investigation.

In August, the county reacted with a $1.4 million proposal to combat gangs and crime. The money will help fund personnel, equipment and education outreach.

Another solution to the gang problem is public dialogue. To address gang violence in the area, King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer hosted a town hall forum Oct. 10 at Thomas Jefferson High School.

“There are people in this community who want to put their heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist,” said von Reichbauer, whose district includes more than 200,000 people living in Federal Way, Auburn and unincorporated areas.

Defying gang stereotypes

There are an estimated 12,000 gang members in King County, with about 143 active criminal street gangs. According to the King County Sheriff’s Office, 87 of those gangs are active in South King County and 46 have at least 15 members each.

Contrary to stereotypes, most gangs in King County contain multiple generations and ethnicities. Although there are some all-female gangs, many local gangs consist of both men and women.

Top gang members who make all the money tend to fly under law enforcement’s radar, said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, a panelist at Monday’s forum. Young people are recruited for violent jobs, partly because violence draws immediate attention from law enforcement — something the gang leaders try to avoid. Violence is seen as one way to “earn your stripes” in a gang, whether against a rival or a cop. Likewise, a 13-year-old offender could escape with less time behind bars than, say, a 17-year-old offender, Satterberg said.

When youth enter the violent gang lifestyle of instant gratification, it either leads to prison or an early death.

“We have to show that version of reality,” said Satterberg, who became the county’s first gang prosecutor in 1988. He added that the single biggest deterrent to crime is to keep kids in school. A teenager who sets a goal of receiving a diploma, for example, is less likely to turn that energy toward crime, he said.

A sobering fact of the gang lifestyle is the recruitment of children, especially those who are born into it. The audience at Monday’s forum saw photos of teens and grade-school children flashing hand signals and wearing gang colors.

“Gang members breed gang members,” said Det. Joe Gagliardi with the King County Sheriff’s Office.

Graffiti is perhaps the most visible sign of gang activity in a particular area. It also serves as a main intelligence source for law enforcement who track these gang activities.

Gagliardi described the difference between gang graffiti and tagger graffiti. The latter is much more common, representing about 85 to 90 percent of graffiti, he said. Typical tagger graffiti is showcased as colorful bubble letters with some sort of artistic bent. Gang graffiti, on the other hand, is much more basic — and is written with the purpose of being understood.

Gang graffiti typically claims territory or issues challenges to rivals. Crossing out a rival gang’s graffiti is considered a sign of disrespect and can lead to retaliation.

Long-term fight

Aside from ongoing collaborations with municipal law enforcement, the King County Sheriff’s Office launched an anti-gang unit in 2008 to address the growing problem.

Enforcement and prevention are two primary strategies to reducing gang violence. The county, along with local police departments, have adopted a proactive mindset of pursuing the “worst of the worst” gang members, said Chief Deputy Steve Strachan.

A healthy community, coupled with stronger and healthy families, is yet another way to combat the problem. Perhaps the biggest enemy to reducing gang violence, Strachan said, is fragmentation — in other words, a lack of cooperation among the county and cities.

“I wish I could tell you there’s a simple answer to this,” he said. “This is a long-term fight.”

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