Yakima has a juvenile gang violence problem; here’s what YPD is doing to fix it

YAKIMA, Wash. —In the past few days, two separate gang-related shootings in Yakima have left a 14-year-old boy dead and an 11-year-old girl injured.

This comes just months after an 11-year-old boy suffered multiple gunshot wounds after his family home was targeted in two drive-by shootings suspected to be gang-related — just 72 hours apart. During the second drive-by shooting, the boy’s 9-year-old sister was shot in the leg.

Yakima Police Capt. Jay Seely said that, unfortunately, children and teens have had increasing involvement in gang activity over the past few years: some as perpetrators, some as victims and some, just loved ones caught in the crossfire.

“These are young kids and more and more of them are becoming involved in violent crime or they’re becoming victims of violent crime,” Seely said.

Police are still working to determine the events that led up to the Monday night shooting inside a near North Sixth Avenue and Willow Street home that claimed the life of the 14-year-old boy. Seely said investigators believe the shooting is gang-related, as the 14-year-old Yakima boy was a “documented gang member.”

“This kid is a middle schooler — a middle schooler [who] hasn’t been to a varsity game, hasn’t been to a prom,” Seely said. “This is a middle school child that was killed … needlessly.”

In the case of the second shooting this week, police said a gang member fired several shots at a home near South 12th Avenue and West King Street early Wednesday morning, striking and injuring an 11-year-old girl as she slept in her bed. 

Police said the suspect — a 22-year-old Yakima man — was targeting the child’s father, who was not home at the time of the shooting. Police said the father is also a gang member.

“As a community, my opinion is we have become numb to this; ‘Oh, that’s just on the east side of town. Oh, those are just gang members,'” Seely said. “Well, they’re still human beings and they’re still somebody’s family.”

Over time, Seely said he’s seen the community become less and less outraged after each time a teenager or child is injured or killed in a gang-related shooting.

“I don’t care if it’s a gang member or not, that’s somebody’s child: that’s devastating,” Seely said. “We should be so mad, so frustrated that this is happening in our little city.”

Seely said he would like to see the community get more involved, by reporting gang graffiti and activity, and helping police with gang-related cases by giving them access to security cameras that may have captured a gang-related incident. He said it’s that type of partnership that makes the community better and ensures people know that residents care when these types of crimes happen.

“That’s somebody’s son. That’s somebody’s brother,” Seely said. “It’s heart-wrenching to watch what’s happening here in Yakima.”

Police: Juvenile gang violence has increased in Yakima in recent years

Seely said the incidents this week and the one from July are just a few of the concerning cases officers have seen recently. He said over the past few years, officers have seen an increase in robberies, assaults and firearms offenses among young people — many of them involved in gang activity.

“Many of these juveniles have multiple incidents involving the police before they’re adults,” Seely said. “I can think of several that have upwards of 60 contacts with police officers in Yakima by the time they’re 15.”

Within just the Yakima city limits, there’s been numerous gang-related shootings and homicides involving juveniles in the past few years, including:

Seely said he first began to notice the move to younger gang members about five or six years ago. He said it started with older gang members giving their guns to young girls in the hopes that officers wouldn’t find them.

“The gang members would give guns to females because they knew the police really wouldn’t pat them down,” Seely said.

Seely said when the police figured that trick out, gang members had to change tactics and began to use the juvenile court system against them.

“They learn, they understand and they adapt and so we adapt and then they adapt again ” Seely said. “This is the kind of tug-of-war, the kind of game that we’re playing with them.”

In Washington state, the majority of crimes committed by young people are adjudicated in the juvenile court system, which works differently than the superior court system that governs adults. The sentencing guidelines are different, as is the way juveniles are treated through the process.

“The gangs know that,” Seely said. “They utilize these young kids because they know there’s no accountability component built into the system when you’re a juvenile.”

The adult system may include some rehabilitative elements, but the focus is on punishment; in juvenile court, punishments are reduced and the main focus is on rehabilitation.

“A system based on rehabilitation and reduced punishment has to do with the fact children are less criminally culpable than adults,” said Todd Dowell, Kitsap County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, in a 2019 guide to the juvenile court system. “They lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. They are deserved of less punishment than adults based on their distinct attributes, even when they commit terrible crimes.”

When juveniles commit particularly heinous crimes, including aggravated murder, they can be tried as adults. However, children under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to death or to life without the possibility of parole.

“We started seeing younger and younger kids using violence and older gang members promoting that because they know the juvenile system, very well,” Seely said. “They know that there’s no consequences for their behavior.”

Seely said older gang members take advantage of kids’ desire to be included in a “family” and convince them to commit violent crimes in order to enter and stay in the gang — all because crimes committed as a juvenile don’t carry the same weight as if they were tried in the adult system.

“We are fighting the gang lifestyle and what it means to these kids,” Seely said. “What we’re fighting is that ‘family’ that they think the gangs are.”

Police working to fix the juvenile gang violence problem

The Yakima Police Department is working on small-scale and large-scale ways to deal with the juvenile gang violence problem in Yakima.

One of the small-scale ways officers are using to make a difference is eradicating gang-related graffiti throughout the city. Police officers are encouraging community members to report gang graffiti immediately so officers can get rid of it as soon as possible.

“Gangs use graffiti to communicate to other gangs, to show intimidation,” Seely said. “We’re doing it to interrupt the gang members and they don’t like it. They don’t like it one bit.”

Seely said another important part of fixing the problem on a small scale is information from informants.

“Behind the scenes, we’re gathering intelligence about the gangs,” Seely said. “We’re learning more about why we’re seeing some of the dust-ups that we’re seeing.”

Seely said detectives use that information to adjust their tactics and inform their decisions when working on gang-related cases. He said some of the most crucial information they receive comes from officials at the state prisons.

“They have a ton of information about our gangs because the prison gangs are really driving the gangs in our community,” Seely said. “There’s a link there and we’re studying it and learning it.”

Then there’s the large-scale solution. Seely said the police department has been working for more than a year on a collaborative program that would identify young people at risk for gang violence and help prevent or address their gang involvement.

“Everybody has to be on board; this can’t just be the police department, it can’t just be the courts,” Seely said. “It’s going to take the cooperation of all of us together to make this work.”

Last year, the city received $230,000 in federal grant funding to become a part of the nationwide Project Safe Neighborhoods program, which is aimed at reducing violent and gang-related crime among children, teens and young adults.

The program is designed to identify those most at risk of committing a violent crime or becoming a victim of one, create a comprehensive network of services for youth at risk of gang involvement and then develop a blueprint for how to help those at risk.

“We’re working with the juvenile prosecutor’s office to keep these kids in custody, to keep them alive and, hopefully, get them some rehabilitation while they’re in custody and get them separated from that gang life,” Seely said.

While the program is still in the works, Seely said they’ve been able to use a mathematical formula developed by the University of Florida to use juveniles’ contacts with police and other factors to determine their propensity to commit crimes or become a victim of violent crime.

Seely said officers have seen the names of juveniles on that list frequently come up as both perpetrators and victims of violent crimes, including a teen who was shot and killed last year.

“It shows that the numbers are right; the numbers are showing us correctly that these kids are the ones that we should be focusing on,” Seely said.

Seely said the program has taken a long time to get going and still has a ways to go. He said they had to get the funding, find someone to develop the statistics, then develop the statistics, review the program and then research the program to make sure it was legal in Washington state — all before even trying to bring community partners together and agree on a plan of action.

“We’ve had meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting to get everybody to the table to talk about it,” Seely said. “It just takes time.”

Some of the partners include representatives of religious communities, social services experts, YPD Gang Unit detectives, juvenile court prosecutors and more.

“We have former gang members who have left the gang life and have run their own programs that are helping us try to reach out to these kids,” Seely said.

Once everyone is on board with the program, Seely said they’ll have to decide on the specifics of what each group will bring to the table and how they can serve the juveniles they all want to try to protect.

“It just comes down to this: what is the best course of action for them?” Seely said. “Is it incarceration? Or is it counseling? Is it some type of mentorship program? That’s what we’re trying to determine.”

Seely said he hopes the program will eventually prevent further deaths among the city’s young people from gang-related violence.

“We are just doing everything we can possibly think of to interject and intercede on their behalf,” Seely said. “This gang life is either leading to prison or a cemetery … There’s really no in-between for these kids.”