PHOTO: Officers from Greshams gang enforcement team. Courtesy of City of Gresham.
Cities as different as Los Angeles and Yakima, Washington, have spent years trying to reduce youth and gang violence. Joe Walsh, the City of Gresham’s gang policy advisor says that those efforts mean we now have evidence of what works –and what doesn’t work.
Walsh was one of the speakers at a gang prevention and enforcement summit, Thursday, where city and county officials rolled out their plans for reducing gang violence in the city. Gresham Mayor Shane Beemis, Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger, Multnomah County DA Rod Underhill, Joe McFerrin of Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center and Traci Rose of Boys and Girls Clubs Portland also spoke.
“We’re here to show the community what we are doing,” Walsh said. “We are taking a collaborative, proactive approach to the problem.”
“The mayor said it well: Enforcement is futile without prevention. I think that’s intuitive. It certainly makes sense to me. But it’s important to note that it also works in practice.”
Walsh said that is why the City of Gresham working closely with Multnomah County, is bringing together law enforcement officers, prosecutors and nonprofits that work with youth and families, to tackle gang violence from all angles.
Walsh said gang violence in Gresham has grown in recent years. Of seven homicides in 2013, six had gang connections. Reports of gang activity and aggravated assaults also have risen, he said.
“Our gang officers are seeing a lot more guns on the street and they’re getting a lot more shots fired calls.
Walsh said crime maps show the problem is not confined to one or two neighborhoods but is spread across the city. About 30 gangs are active in Gresham, he said.
“Our gang unit EMGET, East Multnomah County Gang Enforcement Team, has now documented approximately 450 gang members in East Multnomah County – and that‘s just the ones they have documented,” he said.
“They estimate that for every gang member they document, there are another three to five out there, so you can extrapolate that out to somewhere between 1,300 to 22 or 23 hundred gang members in East Multnomah County. ”
Six gang enforcement officers based at the new Rockwood Public Safety building will provide police services to high crime neighborhoods.
If a shooting occurs, a team will meet to look at ways to get gang members off the street to reduce the risk of retaliation.
At the same time a group of nonprofit agencies will work with at-risk and gang-affected youth and with their families offering support and targeted help. Research shows that children who have mentors are less likely to get into trouble. The same is true for youth who have work or activities after school and during the summer. Portland has taken a similar approach for several years as community members joined the effort to support struggling families and mentor youth through organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Key partners in Gresham include:
Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger said the officers would be on the streets making contact with gang members and their families, gathering intelligence and monitoring gang members use of TriMet.
“What you have to understand is gangs are changing,” he said. “We all associate gangs with turf. 'We own this block. We own this park.' That is a portion of it. But they are all about drugs, the narcotic trade. And they are all about human trafficking…
Many people believe is that gangs is that group where kids find their family. Well, you know what, gangs are criminal enterprises. That’s what they are. Their primary focus is human trafficking and drugs.”
Junginger said that historically Gresham had seen Hispanic gangs. But now more African American gangs are active in the city.
“We have to learn how to address that,” he said.
DA Underhill introduced prosecutors in the room who work with youth and families in East Portland including , a dedicated human trafficking prosecutor as well as a prosecutor based in Rockwood focused on gang cases, a prosecutor based in Gresham and a prosecutor focused on neighborhood crime.
Underhill said he used to think he could work alone to deliver justice to victims, but now believes the community needs to work together on prevention, and to intervene with at-risk youth, in addition to arresting and prosecuting offenders.
“We need your help,” he said.