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Gang elimination strategy OK'd by city council

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Jason Gilbert, the newest member of the Sunnyside Police Department, was sworn in last night by Sunnyside Mayor Jim Restucci.

A gang elimination strategy put together by the Sunnyside Police Department received a nod of support from the Sunnyside City Council last night (Monday).

The council voted 5-2 to support the resolution, which called for the support of the elimination of criminal street gangs in Sunnyside and the surrounding communities, as well as supporting the vision of making Sunnyside the safest community in the state of Washington.

Tensions were high last night as several citizens spoke before the council. Most wanted the police to get tough on criminal gangs in Sunnyside that have been wreaking havoc as of late. The most recent incident was the shooting death of 17-year-old Alfredo Arredondo, who was shot in the head last Friday night in Sunnyside.

Arredondo, according to local police, is not believed to be associated with a gang, although Friday's drive-by shooting is believed to have involved gang members.

Other tensions in the council chamber dealt with a feeling that the gang elimination strategy unfairly targets Hispanics in the community. At least one parent told the council it was unfair that her child might be considered a gang member just because the color of his skin or who his friends might be.

Another citizen, a high school student, told the council the police aren't doing enough to stop the problem.

But the overwhelming majority of citizens who spoke last night supported the police and thought the idea that the gang elimination strategy was targeting Hispanics is ridiculous.

Councilman Nick Paulakis asked Sunnyside Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck directly if any part of the strategy is directed towards one race or another.

Schenck told Paulakis and the council the plan targets criminal gangs, not Hispanics. He promised to relentlessly go after the criminal gangs in a legal and constitutional way.

"Will we take it to the edge," he asked? "Yes."

The resolution was put on the table, but Councilman Don Vlieger made a motion to add an amendment to the resolution, adding exhibits A and B to it.

This divided the council. Mayor Jim Restucci and Council members Theresa Hancock and Paul Garcia were opposed to some of the language in the exhibits, most notably calling criminal gang members the enemy and other ways to combat them, such as informing employers that such an employee is a gang member.

Hancock said that most criminal gang members don't have jobs in the first place, but the ones that do are usually trying to get out of the life. To her thinking, it would be counter-productive to take something positive away from someone trying to lead a better life.

Restucci just didn't see the point in adding the amendments, noting they did nothing to strengthen the support the council has already shown the police department. Restucci also noted that it is not the council's place to direct the police what to do, instead pointing out that is the city manager's job.

Garcia took issue with the division on the council, saying the resolution has unanimous support from the council but adding in the amendments instead divides the council.

"The resolution is supportable, why add the amendments," he asked.

But Vlieger countered that the process wasn't rushed.

"By attaching the strategy you're really saying something," he said.

Schenck stressed to the council that the plan isn't meant to be divisive. "The plan is to attack the gangs, not the community."

Paulakis gave an impassioned speech about the wording of enemy. He said when a 14-year-old girl is shot in her home the person who did that is his enemy. He mentioned last summer's case of a boy who went to turn the light on at the porch of a neighbor who was out of town. He was gunned down by gang members. To Paulakis, those responsible are the enemy.

"I'm fed up with the gangs, I want it stopped," he said.

Restucci told the council he couldn't support the amendment to the resolution.

"It stands on its own, it doesn't need add-ons to make it divisive."

The motion to amend the resolution passed by a narrow 4-3 vote, with Vlieger, Paulakis, Tom Gehlen and Mike Farmer supporting the amendment. Hancock, Garcia and Restucci voted no.

When it came time to vote for the amended resolution, only Garcia and Hancock voted no. Restucci voted for it because although he didn't feel the amendment was needed, the resolution itself was important enough to pass.

The strategic plan calls for the Sunnyside police to treat criminal gang members as domestic terrorists and to use U.S. Army counter insurgency tactics against them.

One accusation from some citizens in attendance last night tried to suggest that the three council members opposed to the amendment weren't supporting the police department. Restucci asked Sunnyside Police Chief Ed Radder if he ever felt the council had hampered the police force in any way. Radder answered in the negative.

The city council has in the past year made funding possible to hire several police officers and a K-9 police dog. Most recently the council approved the hiring of two new police officers and a crime analyst in order to establish a gang enforcement unit.

Sunnyside's most recent police officer, Jason Gilbert, was sworn in last night.

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