Yakima police to work with FBI to fight gang violence

YAKIMA, Wash. — The Yakima Police Department is working to create a countywide task force with local law enforcement agencies and the FBI on fighting gang violence.

“You’re going to have more officers from more agencies with more information and diverse experiences and knowledge working on this issue throughout the valley with the assistance of the FBI and the resources the FBI can bring,” Chief Matt Murray said.

At a Yakima City Council study session Tuesday evening, the Yakima Police Department gave council members an update on efforts to prevent and address gang violence in the community, including their plans to create a countywide task force.

The task force will address one of the barriers investigators face in working to curb gang activity: access to information across city lines.

“Gangs are making decisions in Sunnyside that have direct consequences for what happens here,” Det. Cali Saldana said. “They cross jurisdictions within our valley all the time and we’re not able to keep up as easily.”

Another way police are attempting to combat gang violence is through graffiti abatement. Police said while graffiti is illegal and an eyesore, the real problem is the way gang members use it to communicate with one another.

Graffiti can be used to mark a gang’s territory, bolster individual gang members’ reputations or to issue a challenge to rival gang members, which can often lead to violence between rival gangs. Police said that’s why they encourage community members to report graffiti immediately, so they can stop those messages from spreading.

“They live and die by reputation and we don’t want to further their reputation,” Murray said.

Murray said one of the largest challenges police face with gangs is juvenile gang violence. While juveniles commit the same crimes as adults, the focus of the juvenile justice system focuses on rehabilitation over punishment, which often means lighter sentences.

“Juveniles are often much more willing to take on the risks of committing those crimes or being caught with weapons because they know that it will be a much lighter penalty for them — if any at all,” Saldana said. “Even when we catch them with a gun, what happens then? It feels like nothing and it’s really frustrating and terrifying for many many people.”

Murray said older gang members take advantage of the lighter penalties by recruiting juveniles to commit violent crimes on behalf of the gang, knowing that they will not face the same charges or sentences as older members.

“Girls are often trafficked for sex, but boys are trafficked for violence,” Murray said. “What these gang members are doing is looking for younger and younger boys to do the work.”

Police have been addressing the juvenile gang violence problem through a focused deterrence program, which uses crime statistics and other data to identify people at risk of committing or being a victim of violent crime. Officers then work with local nonprofits and other agencies to target those people for intervention.

“The gang members choose what they do and we are responding to what it is that they do,” Murray said. “Hopefully they’ll choose the right path.”

Murray said while certain people commit crimes that make them too dangerous to allow to stay within the community and need to be arrested, the overarching goal is to get people out of the gang lifestyle and prevent others from joining.

“If we can get them out of this life, we’re thrilled,” Murray said.

RELATED: Teens crash stolen car into Yakima school bus after gang-related shooting

RELATED: Teen sentenced for role in Yakima gang-related shooting

RELATED: Police: 14-year-old killed in gang-related shooting in Yakima

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