Correctional Officers Help Offenders Leave Behind The Gang Life

Sara Jean Green (Seattle Times)

July 5, 2010

Eric Looney says he is done running with the Hoover Crips.

Community Corrections Officer Mark Deabler is skeptical but hopeful he’s telling the truth about leaving the gang life.

Looney, 33, was first sent to prison in 2000 for an attempted robbery. A couple of years ago, he was back in prison for assaulting a King County sheriff’s deputy.

A new gang strategy was launched in King County this spring after deep budget cuts forced community-corrections officials to shift more of their attention onto a small subset of offenders who pose the biggest danger to public safety.

“I’m tired of going to prison. It’s time for a change,” said Looney, who joined the Hoovers when he was 12 ½ and whose body is inked with tattoos declaring his allegiance. “People think your homies are your friends but when you need them, they’re never around. It’s like a dead-end situation.”

Deabler, who also supervises one of Looney’s four brothers, knows how tough it can be to resist the lure of gangs.

“If he’s being truthful about getting out of the gang stuff, that’s a big step in the right direction, but he’s obviously got some work to do,” Deabler said of Looney.

Getting current and former gang members to leave a lifestyle that, in some cases, stretches back generations is the ultimate goal of the new gang strategy in King County, said Donta Harper, Department of Corrections Field Administrator.

Harper oversees 170 community-corrections officers working in field units from Seattle’s Northgate neighborhood to Federal Way.

Of the 4,000 people in King County now being supervised after serving prison or jail time, Harper estimates 700 are current or former gang members, mostly living in South Seattle, Renton, Auburn, Kent and Federal Way.

While there are success stories — like the man in his late 40s who started selling drugs at age 7 but recently bought a pair of pants with the first legal money he’s ever made — many struggle to find work or get treatment for addictions and mental-health problems.

Those who have shown little interest in giving up gang banging get the most attention from community-corrections officers, and are subject to curfews, electronic-home monitoring and other restrictions on their movements. If they break a rule, they can be sent back to prison or jail.

A new law went into effect that ended community supervision for roughly 10,000 low- and medium-risk offenders and eliminated more than 250 staff positions statewide. The budget for the Community Corrections Division was reduced by $18.9 million for the 2009-2011 budget cycle, leaving just under $280 million to supervise the state’s 19,000 high-risk offenders.

One of the goals with the new gang initiative is to better share information among prison staff, community-corrections officials, county jails and local police about gang members returning to the community.

Under the new initiative, community-correction officers will conduct interviews to collect similar data on gang members as they’re released from county jails. That will expand the state’s database to include those gang members who have served jail time but have never gone to prison.

Mike Schemnitzer, a Community Corrections veteran who works in West Seattle, said he’s learned through experience what the gang mindset is: You have to earn respect and make money by committing crimes, such as shootings, drug dealing, home invasions and pimping women into prostitution.

“On top of it … have a reputation to uphold as a gang member,” Schemnitzer said. Any show of disrespect from a rival gang has to be countered with violence, and the back-and-forth retaliation can quickly lead to a body count, he said.

Derrick Dotson is a community-corrections officer in Federal Way. He says he grew up on the East Coast and remembers a cousin who joined a gang when they were both teens. Last year, his cousin, who was on parole, was killed after he shot two police officers in upstate New York. In summer 2008, another cousin, who was 16, died in a drive-by shooting, Dotson said.

“I tell a lot of these guys, ‘You’re going to die, you’re going to get caught and go back to jail or prison, or you’re going to get tired … of looking over your shoulder'” for cops and rival gang members, he said.

“We’re in between law enforcement and social workers. We’re like outreach workers but with teeth. We’re here to help but there are times we have to put the clamps on,” Dotson said.

Unlike police officers, community-corrections officers don’t have radios, in-car computers or Tasers — there just isn’t the money for such things, said Deabler, who works out of the Renton field office.

He made several stops in Skyway and Renton, but many offenders weren’t home. One, reached by phone, was at work in Bellevue. Deabler was told others were “out” by the friend or family member who answered his knock.

At a sprawling apartment complex in Skyway, Deabler went to check on an active member of the Elm Street Bloods. The man’s mother, 61-year-old Ella Rooters, answered the door.

Rooters told Deabler her 40-year-old son — who was first arrested at age 13 — got in a fight with a girlfriend who also lives in the complex and was banned from the property by the apartment manager.

He’s now living with another woman in West Seattle, but the relationship is volatile and Rooters worries her son will end up back in prison.

“My son has been in and out of prison most of his life, and I’d hate to see him go back. He just got back into my life,” she said.

Rooters raised five children by herself and has been raising two grandchildren since they were toddlers. Recently, her 15-year-old grandson began running with a rough crowd and got arrested.

“I’m going through court with him now,” she said. “I’ll be 62 in August and I’ve been a mother and a father and now I’m raising a second family.

“I need help right now. I need help,” she said.

Deabler is sympathetic, but there isn’t much he can do. He jotted down the girlfriend’s name and headed back to his car.

Later, he swung by another apartment in Skyway. The man he planned to see was recently released from prison and “doing really well.

“Since he got out of prison, he’s been on top of everything,” Deabler said. “He got into treatment on his own, and he’s looking for work.”

One employer showed initial interest in hiring him, said the man, now in his 40s. “I don’t know why they dumped me. “They tell me to fill out an application, they say they’ll get back to me and I never hear from them again.”

Despite his frustration, the man said he is committed to change: “You get too old for this … ” he said of running with a gang. “I don’t want to go back to prison. You get tired, man. The only way you get off of this is to get off of it.”

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