A new report says gang violence is building — five gang related murders have been investigated already this year — and the best solution to the problem is more resources for youth.
The Human Services Department for the City of Seattle commissioned The Gang Needs Assessment Project to accurately see the problem as well as assess what can be done.
"This report is trying to get a snapshot on the perceptions of the problem," said Eric Anderson, director for Youth Development for the Human Services Department of Seattle. "We wanted to get a read on the issue going beyond crime statistics."
The report found that 77 percent of the people surveyed had a friend who was a gang member and over half knew of a family member. The report also saw a perception among youth that hand guns were "readily available and accessible."
The Human Services Department worked with local consulting firms in order to create a report that looked at the murky issue of gang and youth violence.
"We don't have any statistics related to gang violence as it is hard to categorize them," said Sgt. Jeff Kappel, spokesman for the Seattle Police Department. "But overall, crime in 2007 was at a 40-year low."
Kappel mentioned that while the Seattle Police compiles statistics on types of crime and other factors, it is hard to tell whether a crime is gang-related until a full investigation is complete. Because of this difficulty, the need for a more qualitative report became necessary.
One of the major issues with compiling gang and youth violence statistics is calling them "gang-related." This label carries with it serious connotations and makes defining what is and is not gang violence all the more difficult.
"The problem is that we can get caught labeling people, especially the victims of the crime," said Anderson.
The report found there was concern among community members "regarding profiling of gangs as any African American youth or any youth of color gathering in a public space."
The Gangs Need Assessment Project is currently revising all their findings in order to be sure that project is not misrepresentative of the issue.
According to nwgangs.com, a website that provides gang information, there are 100-140 gangs in Seattle, comprising around 3,000 members.
"In the Northwest the only other area that rivals Seattle's gang problem is the Yakima Valley," said Brad, owner of nwgangs.com. "We have a gang problem in Seattle, but it's not nearly as bad as other large U.S. cities."
Brad, who declined to use his last name, runs his website to provide gang information which might not be readily available through the police department. He collects his information through a variety of resources from "going straight to source" and communicating with local gang members, as well as speaking with police officers.
"I would not compare it to the gang problem Seattle had in the early to mid 1990s," said Brad. "But since 2006 it has seemed to increase a little more each year."
To help combat the issue of youth violence, many community groups and youth programs look to reach out to kids to involve them in more positive activities. Kappel said the Seattle Police Department promotes this idea by encouraging youth to be involed with after-school programs and recreational sports.
"By ninth grade, kids are looking to associate themselves and that's where the pressure begins," said Martin Moore, mentor recruiting manager for the Community for Youth. "Instead of the peer pressure to join the Crips or other gangs, we give them the pressure to join a community of youth."
The Community for Youth is a mentoring program which pairs high school-age kids with mentors in order to creating healthy and positive relationships. Mentors work three hours a week for the youth. The program, currently looking for new mentors, serves Cleveland, Chief Sealth and Rainier Beach high schools.
"What is unique about Community for Youth is that we are the only mentoring program in Seattle for high school-age youth," said Moore.
While many local mentoring programs, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, focus on younger kids, Moore sees Community for Youth as able to more adequately help youth at prime risk for joining gangs.
Despite differences of opinion on the severity of the issue, a key finding of the Gang Needs Assessment Project found that positive influences such as school programs, recreational activities, family and friends were all needed to help combat the problem of gang and youth violence.
For more information about Community for Youth, go to www.communityforyouth.org/.