OLYMPIA - Rep. Charles Ross has had enough. Of criminal street gangs, that is.
The lawmaker from the 14th Legislative District is proposing legislation at the urging of constituents and local elected officials to curb the activities of criminal gangs plaguing their communities and build upon previous gang legislation successfully adopted in 2007.
"There is clear and present danger in the communities I represent. We have parks that are vacant of children because of the fear of gang intimidation. People in my district are tired of living in fear and they are tired of more talk about how to stop criminal gangs. They expect action from us, and that is exactly what I have asked of my colleagues," said Ross, R-Naches. "Criminal gangs need to be stopped, and locals need enhanced abilities to protect their communities."
House Bill 2550 would authorize counties to adopt nuisance procedures for gang injunctions, restraining orders and other action to reduce criminal gang activities. Nuisances could apply to buildings in much the same way drug activity is enforced.
House Bill 2415 would increase penalties for gang intimidation, gang-related graffiti, and gang members who commit a felony.
"If you can't feel safe driving in your car, walking down the street or having a barbecue in your own back yard, then there is a real problem. Yet we have continued to see this in Yakima, Sunnyside, Toppenish, Selah and many other communities throughout the state," Ross said. "I'm grateful for the support of the chair, Representative Chris Hurst, with this legislation and for his willingness to hear these bills in the public safety committee. We are continuing the work we started to set clear guidelines on how we will hold criminal street gangs accountable."
Local officials from Yakima also testified on the bill.
"We're dealing with career criminals here, even juveniles who choose the life of gangs. It's time for us to change our way of thinking," said Sheriff Ken Irwin.
"Gangs don't stay the same, they evolve," said Yakima Police Chief Sam Granato.
"This is becoming an everyday occurrence our children are dealing with and becoming accustomed to. Yakima citizens are doing whatever they can to try to take care of this problem, but if we can't take care of the suppression, we can't work with the students and parents. We're begging for your help," said Yakima Councilwoman Kathy Coffey.
Yakima Prosecutor Jim Hagarty testified that the majority of homicides in Yakima County last year were gang-related.
Yakima Councilman Dave Ettl testified that throughout his radio career he has seen the growth of gangs which started out as concern over gang member "wannabees."
"Gang violence is a threat to civilized society, and we need to do more," said Yakima City Manager Dick Zais.
Yakima Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Troy Clements testified about the need for protection for witnesses so they can build a stronger case and, he said, injunctions will allow the city to be proactive.
"We're coming to you as a partner to put all resources together to fight this problem," said Yakima Mayor Micah Cawley.
Yakima County Commissioner Kevin Bouchey and Councilwoman Maureen Adkison also testified in favor of the gang legislation.
Both bills are scheduled to be voted out of the Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee on Friday, Jan. 29.