TOPPENISH - "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and hangs out with other ducks, then it's probably a gang member," said Toppenish Police Detective Jaban Brownell.
The Yakima County Gang Commission held its monthly meeting yesterday at the Toppenish School District Administration office. In attendance were nearly 20 individuals representing local, county and state government and law enforcement. Detective Brownell was one of many in attendance that presented data and updates in local efforts to rid the cities of gang activity.
All in attendance agree that data is one of the most important elements in making positive changes. Individuals of the commission have been collecting data on crime, gang activity and the like to bring before the group for discussion and action planning.
Toppenish Police Chief Adam Diaz reported that gang members are recruiting younger members. Brownell said the younger members are more dangerous.
"We have documented some as young as eight years old; the younger ones want to prove a point," he said. "They want to earn 'cred'."
Out of the data and planning came the gang courts program. The program was presented at the meeting by Washington State Courts Administrative Consultant Harold Delia. Gang court was implemented by Yakima County in cooperation with the Gang Commission and the Superior Court several months ago. The idea behind the program was to deal overall with the gang issues in the valley. Gang court works through the juvenile court, by getting convicted individuals to volunteer for the program.
"It goes to the core of why the problem exists," said Gang Commission Chairman Kevin Bouchey.
A cohort to Delia, probations officer Owens Barrios, said the gang court currently has 246 participants and one of its participants is from the city of Grandview. Participants of the program are volunteers who agree to follow certain procedures set by the court to "get them out of the system," Bouchey added.
Tim Sullivan presented the comprehensive gang assessment update. The goal is to gather data in order to obtain vital information for law enforcement and additionally for grant writing purposes.
"Too much data is always better," Sullivan said.
The data gathered is not in the stages of release yet, according to Sullivan, but he said bystanders are impressed with the data collected and its detailed nature.
Sullivan said the challenge with gathering county-wide data is the several jurisdictions within the county.
"Our data includes every city," he added.
Similar data gathered in larger cities usually results in one jurisdiction.
"We are gathering for the entire Yakima County," he added.
Toppenish Police Department presented details about its crime-free housing program. The program invites landlords and property owners to participate in ridding their homes of gang activity.
In contrast to the city of Sunnyside, where the program is mandatory, Toppenish faces the challenges of offering the program now mandated by legislation as a voluntary program. Months after Sunnyside implemented the crime free housing program with their landlords, legislation stated the program could no longer be mandatory. Toppenish started the program after and reported nearly eight properties with 100 units are participating in the program.
"It's a good stride to start with," Toppenish Police Chief Adam Diaz said.
Yakima Police Department Lt. Mike Merryman presented the Yakima gang free initiative assessment. Merryman agrees with Toppenish P.D. that gangs are recruiting younger members.
"The typical reason to join a gang used to be about a sense of belonging," he said. "But now the younger members are looking for that adrenaline rush and are more violent."
Merryman said nearly nine months ago the department began gathering data and they are three months from their goal of completion.
"In 90 days we hope to have implementation on our findings," he added.
The meeting closed with community reports. Reports across the county agree that currently gang activity has been quiet. But recruitment is rising. The next Yakima County Gang Commission meeting will be held Sept. 20 in Union Gap.