Yakama Nation member: "We need something to help us to remain safe in our town"
As the Legislature continues to consider a bill to reduce gang violence, consider the words of those most impacted by the issue. On Jan. 19, community activists, parents who’ve lost children, officers who police gang-plagued cities, public officials and others came to Olympia to speak out. They pleaded with the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee, urging them to pass HB 1126. Here are portions of what they had to say:
Dora Trevino, Wenatchee
"I am here as a mother of a homicide victim murdered by a gang member. I know you’ve probably heard a lot from parents. But I’m telling you why this is a promise I made to my son 11 years ago...that I was going to do whatever it would take to bring some changes. But I never thought this would happen. I thought it was going to take an eternity but no, 11 years is nothing to see a state law come through. Because now we have something. And I’m not speaking just for my son…but speaking for all those other families that are suffering because they lost a loved one or they have someone that’s disabled because their lives were cut short by a gang member that decided to make their own laws."
Virgil James, Community Safety Network, Toppenish
"I’m a Yakama tribal member and U.S. Air Force vet, and former Tribal Council member. And most important of all, I’m a CSN volunteer person for over a year now. I’ve had about four personal incidences where bullets hit my car door, hit a house of a relative, hit the window of a next door neighbor. I don’t know if they were at me but it is a scary experience. The criminal element is always one of my themes. I don’t care what race or culture a person is that shot those shots – if it was one person or more. All I care is that law enforcement catches them. That’s my message to the panel here. It doesn’t matter if it’s one person or many more. It’s a crime. Enforce it. Yakama Nation is a sovereign nation but the chair of the Tribal Council did offer assistance and teamwork with all of the governments in the area to help enforce decreasing the criminal element in the area. So that was good news. CSN has weekly and monthly meetings..there’s no less than three communities and cultures who attend weekly and monthly. And it’s really rare to see that at meetings of this kind. And we want to have strength and unity. And they’ve accomplished this. We’ve accomplished this with churches, parents, governments, local agencies, all working together. And I stand in support of the legislation discussed today and we’ll do what we can to support it. Thank you."
Diane Sampson, Community Safety Network, Toppenish
"We are a small community. Our community organization is all volunteer. We got started because of two young men that were killed and we wanted to make a difference. We are about safety in Toppenish. And I hear a lot of people talking about things done for gang members. Well, us as private citizens, we need something to help us to remain safe in our town. We want our children to grow up in a safe town and we want to remain safe."
Kevin Bouchey, Yakima County Gang Commission
"The Gang Commission is a collaborative effort between the 14 cities of towns, the Yakama Nation and Yakima County to address and reduce the gang issue within our area. I recently had a father of four in Granger plead with me to help his community deal with a local gang house. Their neighborhood was unsafe for his four children. And he pleaded with me that we needed to figure out a way to address that – keeping in mind that, for his four children, the preventative aspects of gangs is for them to live in a safe neighborhood."
Brian O'Neill, Gang Intel Officer, Auburn Police Department
"I work for a small suburban city that has been forced to come to the realization that we have a gang problem. That gang problem is very very violent, very prevalent and growing. I will tell you that if Auburn is given the opportunity, I can speak for our agency, we’re going to put it into place right away. On behalf of the citizens who I represent…I feel like after all the many meetings I’ve gone to, much like yourselves and the people I’ve talked to, I owe it to those individuals and those neighborhoods and those groups to say that this type of injunction is going to go a long way towards relieving these people that are living in neighborhoods that are violent, depressed and very ,very unpleasant."
Troy Clements, Yakima County Prosecutor
"[Gang cases] are some of the hardest to prosecute, and I’ll tell you why. On every level, the gang is often trying to derail prosecution, and a good example is the case I just tried where not only were jurors approached…a couple of gang members…managed to get a couple of phone numbers from jurors. We went and got jail phone calls to see might be going on. They were telling their friends to pack the courtrooms because it might intimidate the jury. This is also true for witnesses. They pack the courtroom so when a witness comes to testify or a victim. It’s tacit intimidation of the courtroom. Because the biggest thing for us is getting victims to cooperate, witnesses. You’ve often heard …neighborhoods are terrorized by gangs. So I ask you, what about the rights of law abiding citizens to live in their community? To have their kids be able to walk down the street?" [O]ur job is to prosecute, not only just to prosecute but to seek justice. We’re not going to go out and just target people. I disagree with the ACLU’s perspective. We don’t go after people just because they’re wearing a color or whatever. We don’t have time, quite frankly. We go after the worst of the worst."
Ken Irwin, Yakima County Sheriff
"In the midst of my 38th year in law enforcement, drugs and gangs, drugs and gangs, drugs and gangs. We ask you to please step up as legislators, and help us push this gang bill through. We’re in need of triage. We can’t treat everything right now. We don’t have the money to do all we need to do, but part of my testimony is to let you know of some of the good things that are going on, some of the positive measures with prevention and intervention in the Yakima, greater Yakima area…Good things are going on, we’re empowering people to help take care of their own community, and we ask you to do your part on passing this legislation."
Sgt. Eric Hildebrandt, Yakima Police Department Gang Unit
"We work every day dealing with the gang problem, and the more tools we can get, obviously, would be beneficial to us. I urge you to support this bill as well. The nuisance abatement program is one that’s on this bill. It’s a program that we have newly adopted in the city of Yakima at the city level and has been very effective to this date, and I urge you to support that, for that reason. It’s been a great tool for the gang unit itself. When we have identified gang houses that are problematic, we contact them directly through this program. If they’re renters, it gives them a little bit more beef as far as getting them out quicker, and if they’re not renters, we start putting pressure on them as homeowners to solve the problem, get the problem out of that house or that neighborhood so that the residents that live in that area feel safer. The second area is the protection order tool, which we don’t have obviously at this point, but I think would be an enormously helpful tool for us. Not just in the city of Yakima but in the state in general. Yakima is very unique in that it has very identified geographical areas. If we had the tool to use this right now, it could help us to identify who these individuals are and keep them out of these areas and use enforcement on that based on this protection order tool, and I very much support it."
Opponents of the bill spoke, too. For example, Alex Sanchez, a self-described former gang member, called the legislation “unfair” and suggested that it would result in the police taking away his freedom. Interesting, Sanchez also acknowledged that his decision to turn his life around came only once he was behind bars and met a jail chaplain.
View the entire hearing on TVW. Learn more about our gang bill on the AGO’s Legislative page.