Farming town fights back against gangs
The state's first anti-gang ordinance may emerge from this Yakima Valley community "under siege," but it also has prompted concerns about civil rights and racial profiling.
Seattle Times staff reporter
SUNNYSIDE, Yakima County — Elie Amaro no longer leaves her windows open at night and has taught her daughter, Mercedes Sanchez, to drop to the floor at the sound of gunfire.
Mercedes, 10, is too scared to ride her bike around Village Park, a neighborhood of 100 modular homes built where there was once an asparagus field. Gang members steal cars, spray-paint graffiti, break into houses, fight in the streets and shoot at each other.
"We love it when the police go by and do their rounds," Amaro said. "When they drive by real slow, it makes me feel safe."
So Monday night, Amaro and her neighbors in the predominantly Hispanic city plan to be at a City Council meeting, where officials are expected to pass an ordinance that would make it illegal to be in a street gang.
Residents are frustrated and fed up with the violence, and city officials say the law is needed to help police control a growing crisis. But some believe the law violates civil rights and could lead to racial profiling.
Paula Barraza, Amaro's neighbor, organized Village Park's first Neighborhood Watch meeting two weeks ago. She said rival gangs are terrorizing the city, and she's had it with their thuggish behavior. In Village Park alone, a 13-year-old boy was grazed by a bullet last month, and on Wednesday a house a few blocks away was shot up.
"We're hard-working people and I think these Hispanic gangs are making us look bad," Barraza said. "I don't think [the ordinance] is a racist thing, and I don't think they're profiling anybody. It's the gangs that are making themselves noticeable."
The goal of the ordinance is to prevent a "fully ripened gang culture" from becoming entrenched in Sunnyside, an agricultural community of 14,000 people midway between Yakima and the Tri Cities, said City Attorney Mark Kunkler.
The law would make it illegal to participate in a criminal street gang, including wearing certain clothing, flashing signs or using gang names in a threatening or intimidating way.
For adults, committing gang-related crimes, recruiting new gang members or threatening those who try to leave a gang would be gross misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. It would be up to Yakima County prosecutors to decide whether to apply the ordinance to juveniles charged with a gross misdemeanor.
Gang members who loiter in public places — including the yards and driveways of private homes — in order to establish turf or sell drugs could be charged with a misdemeanor. The law also would allow city officials to evict tenants or condemn buildings deemed public nuisances, and fine parents up to $1,000 if they knowingly allow or fail to stop their children from participating in gangs.
"We're not naive enough to think we're going to eliminate gangs in Sunnyside," said City Manager Bob Stockwell. "But [the ordinance] will allow us to have much better control over the situation."
About 50 adults and 200 juveniles are self-declared gang members in Sunnyside and dozens of others hang out on the fringes. Arresting and jailing gang members each time they break the proposed law would serve two purposes, said Stockwell. It would disrupt gang activity and make it increasingly costly for gang members and their families. And it would dissuade youth who "haven't made the decision to be in a gang" from joining one, he said.
Hispanic gangs, victims
In Sunnyside, nestled in the lower Yakima Valley between the Horse Heaven Hills to the south and Rattlesnake Ridge to the north, businesses selling tractors outnumber car lots. There's an asparagus field across from the mall and the smell of cow manure lingers in the air outside the Sunnyside Police Department.
In this part of the state, agriculture is the economic engine, and Hispanics represent a larger proportion of the population than on the west side of the Cascades. In Sunnyside, where 75 percent of the city's population is Hispanic, a majority of gang members — and their victims — are also Hispanic.
On Thursday, Officer Erica Rollinger drove a couple of visitors through town, stopping in front of a now-vacant house where bullet holes pocked the double-paned windows. She slowed her patrol car as she passed by a park that was the scene of a recent drive-by shooting. From the paint store to the local VFW hall, she pointed out the spots where business owners have painted over gang graffiti.
"You definitely feel the tensions rising in the community," said Rollinger. "People are tired of the graffiti and all the violence."
That night, Officer Jaime Prieto cruised the same streets Rollinger patrolled during the day. Prieto, one of four officers assigned to the department's nine-month-old gang unit, was the first to arrive in Village Park Wednesday night after a drive-by shooter fired three rounds into a house. No one was injured, but a bullet whizzed by the head of a sleeping 17-year-old girl. Prieto suspects the girl's younger brother, who'd been shot at a couple of months ago, was the intended target of a rival gang member.
Though there hasn't been a homicide in the city this year, a 15-year-old Sunnyside boy was arrested earlier this month, accused of fatally shooting a man in Outlook, a neighboring community in unincorporated Yakima County. Soon, school will let out for the summer, and Prieto expects things to get worse.
"I'm thinking we'll probably have a homicide this summer," he said. "The way it's going, somebody is going to get killed."
Though Sunnyside may be exposing itself to lawsuits challenging the ordinance's constitutionality, Stockwell said it was born out of frustration with lawmakers and a desperation to do something to help restore citizens' sense of safety.
At the request of state Attorney General Rob McKenna, Sen. Jim Clements, R-Selah, introduced a bill during the last legislative session that would have defined a gang and gang violence, made gang "tagging" a gross misdemeanor and established sentencing enhancements of up to two years for adult gang members convicted of felonies, said Chris Johnson, McKenna's policy director. Lawmakers ultimately authorized a working group of experts to examine the issue.
But Sunnyside can't wait for the state to address such pressing concerns, Stockwell said.
"If we spend two or three more years talking about it, we can be certain it's going to get worse," Stockwell said.
Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, sympathizes with communities battling gang violence. But Sunnyside's proposed anti-gang ordinance is vaguely written and violates rights to free expression and association, he said. Under Sunnyside's proposed ordinance, Honig said, a church support group for former gang members could be considered a gang, and any kid wearing an L.A. Raiders jacket could be labeled a gang member.
"When laws are written vaguely like this, it can be used in practice to stigmatize people based on appearance and can be applied unequally to people based on their race or ethnic group," he said. "It opens the door to racial profiling, whether that's intended or not."
Johnson of the Attorney General's Office said it's not illegal to be a gang member and if someone "is not involved in criminal activity, it's not our business how they wear their pants."
Kunkler, Sunnyside's attorney, said the attorney general's staff had reviewed the ordinance and determined it was constitutional. Though Johnson said he discussed the issue with Sunnyside's police chief, his office isn't authorized to give legal advice to municipalities.
Still, Johnson understands Sunnyside's frustrations. There is nothing in the state's criminal code about gangs, and many state lawmakers — especially those who don't represent the Puget Sound region or Eastern Washington — just "didn't understand why we need separate gang-related offenses," he said. "In the Yakima Valley, they're ... under siege," Johnson said.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or email@example.com
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