Police remain focused on local gang problems

A low turnout marked the final meeting of the Sunnyview Republican Women's Club before the group takes its annual summer break, but the handful of attendees was treated to an excellent presentation Tuesday afternoon by guest speaker Phil Schenck, deputy chief of the Sunnyside Police Department.

Schenck was filling in for Sen. Jim Honeyford, who was unable to attend due to a special legislative session underway in Olympia. Schenck told the group that he will be meeting with newly elected Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson later this week to discuss ways to eradicate criminal gang activity.

Schenck started with a short history lesson about Sunnyside and its gang problems.

"A few years ago, Sunnyside was a radically different place," Schenck said. "But now parents are willing to let their kids play on the streets again."

Schenck said the gang problems first became apparent in 1990 when the city had its first drive-by shooting.

"I was one of the officers who responded to that call," he said. "I was one who helped to solve it."

Schenck said the shooting involved a pickup truck with three teens in it. They were shot at by the occupants of a car that was trailing the truck. He said none of the teens were hit, which was a miracle because the pickup looked like Swiss cheese after the incident. But one bullet went through the truck, a fence, the wall of a house and hit a man resting on his couch in his own home.

"That was 1990," Schenck said. "They said it was just boys clubs getting rowdy. But boys clubs don't shoot at each other like that."

Schenck said the city managed to suppress the gangs for a time, but about six years later they came back in a surge. Another effort, mostly involving putting more police on the streets, quelled the outbreak. Again, the peace only lasted a few years.

Schenck stressed that current methods of suppression, while they work in the short-term, are not the solution to the problem of gangs. He said that the culture has to change fundamentally to stop the problem.

He cited Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who argues that we are teaching our children to kill through violent media, including video games. Schenck noted a case in which a child who killed his classmates had a better accuracy rate than most police officers. The child learned to shoot through video games.

"We're always told that kids join gangs because they're poor," he said. "But we have four-point (GPA) students from good backgrounds in gangs."

He said that surveys of gang members once showed that people joined gangs to be part of something, to belong. That has changed, said Schenck. Many gang members now tell police they belong to gangs because it's fun. Many gang members are out seeking a thrill.

Schenck told the group that the American dream is that anyone who works hard enough can become a millionaire. Everyone can succeed and there is always room at the top.

But many people have a more limited view, he said. They feel that when someone else succeeds it somehow takes away from their own achievements. He compared the attitude to crabs in a bucket. If one climbs up, the others will grab its legs and pull it back down.

Schenck argued that changing the culture away from casual violence and back towards the American dream is how gangs will ultimately be defeated for good.

In the meantime, Sunnyside still has a gang problem, and it cannot change the culture by itself, so police have used all the tools at their disposal to fight gangs.

Schenck said the most useful tool for the police has been the crime-free rental program. It was designed to be as light a burden on landlords as possible while still being an effective tool to get gang members out of town.

"We want the gang members to leave," said Schenck. "The only acceptable place for a gang member to live is two states away."

The crime-free rental program has been a success in the city, Schenck said, but noted some gang members own their homes. The police have the ability to put liens on properties to get criminal activity to stop at those places, but Schenck said he hasn't used that tool yet.

"I'm not a big government guy," he said. "I'd rather not add to the burden."

Research has also shown that while some people will leave town when there is a crackdown on crime, many will stay and operate within the confines of the law. The trick is to keep them following the law long enough that going back to crime does not make sense, and to keep gang members from passing down criminal ways to their children, said Schenck.

To fight the latest gang problems, the police also increased the number of officers on the force. They focused on lateral hiring to get more experienced officers, as well.

"We became very expensive," said Schenck. "We were already expensive, but it got worse."

The force is down by a few officers now, including the loss of its crime analyst, which helps the financial bottom-line. However, the goal is to make sure citizens see police officers every day. And that can only be accomplished if the force has enough officers, he said.

"We need to have the community like and support the police," he said. "But we didn't want to end up being nice to gang members."

The police had to strike a balance. Schenck compared the local campaign to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"You can't make progress if everybody hates you," he said. "We have to win the hearts and minds of the people."

Schenck also said the job of the police is to make gang members feel uncomfortable, within the bounds of the law. He said the vision of the police department is to make Sunnyside the safest community in Washington state.

"Our mission is to eliminate gangs," Schenck said. "Not kill them, but get them to leave or to obey the law."

He said the police have gone after the infrastructure of the gangs, destroying the support network that allows them to function. While gangs are adapting, the police have to adapt faster.

"We are always looking for the best way," he said. "And we'll keep looking."

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