New gang task force ready to take action

Nine law enforcement officers from around county will focus on catching violent criminals

POSTED ON Tuesday, January 06, 2009 AT 11:12PM

by Melissa Sanchez
Yakima Herald-Republic


Using seed money from the state’s anti-gang law, leaders from Yakima Valley’s law enforcement agencies are creating a task force to pursue the county’s most violent criminals.

They released details Tuesday about the Gang Enforcement Team, which will form “as soon as the papers are signed,” said county Sheriff Ken Irwin.

For now, plans call for a task force made up of nine employees from municipal, state and federal agencies who will work in the same building, at a secret location.

“Gang crime is not tied to city limits,” said Mayor Dave Edler. “We don’t want to push gang crime from one community to another.”

Even though the word “gang” is in its name, Irwin said the task force will target habitual criminals, drug addicts and sex offenders.

The Yakima City Council voted Tuesday night to allow the city’s police department to move one officer to the task force. From the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, a three-person crime reduction unit will make the switch, Irwin said.

“This is just a more formal effort at increasing our communication and effectiveness,” the sheriff said. “This has a great chance for success in letting Yakima County turn the corner on what’s been going on lately.”

On Saturday, a 22-year-old man was shot to death at a busy Sunnyside convenience store. Investigators are still working the case — the county’s first homicide of the year. In 2008, about half of the county’s 18 homicides were believed to have been gang related.

As anti-gang legislation worked its way through the state Legislature last spring, agency leaders in Yakima County began discussing the possibility of a task force. But they realized that money would be a problem when the hoped-for state funding didn’t materialize.

The task force did receive $150,000 in funding from the legislation, and will extend available overtime money to smaller communities, Irwin said.

A statewide gang member database that was part of the new law hasn’t been created yet.

Just one police department besides Yakima has signed on to the task force. That department, Sunnyside, can only afford to contribute an officer part time.

“Obviously, with the gang issues we’ve been experiencing, we’re reaching to any partnerships we can create,” said Phil Schenck, the deputy police chief there. “Gangs are mobile and each municipality has their own gang members they deal with routinely. They do move back and forth between cities, which is why we need to have this communication going.”

So far, the other agencies that have agreed to join are the Yakima County Department of Corrections, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Marshals Service and Washington State Department of Corrections, Irwin said. The task force will also have a crime prevention and intervention component.

Smaller communities saw a rise in gang activity after Yakima’s police department formed its gang enforcement team five years ago, said Joe Salinas, a Yakima officer who led that team until December.

“Gang members leave (Yakima) to conduct their business, whether to sell drugs or shoot rivals,” he said “Cities that border us are having more of a gang problems than we are now.”

The task force will work throughout the county regardless of whether the agency where the crime is committed could afford to join.

“It’s a good idea and something we’d like to participate in,” said Adam Diaz, police chief in Toppenish, where one murder took place last year. “We don’t have the resources to devote an officer full time. We’re struggling to continue to operate the agency and to provide services to the community.”

Agencies already work together. Smaller departments pool resources, overlap officers’ shifts, and form teams of three or four officers to tackle property crimes, graffiti, speeding or gangs, Diaz said.

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