Why Talk of Seattle's "Latino Gang War" Is Mostly Overblown

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Yesterday, King County Executive Dow Constantine held a press conference and announced his plan to draw $1.4 million from an emergency law-enforcement fund to combat a "Latino gang war" that he and other local authorities claim is raging throughout King County. Constantine cited some scary statistics during the proceedings, noting that there are more than 140 street gangs with more than 10,000 members in the County, and that there have been 29 gang-related homicides and 200 gang-related shootings in the past three years. That sounds terrifying, and the situation on the streets has undoubtedly grown worse in recent years, but the figures are also a bit misleading. Here's why.

For starters, it is next to impossible to quantify the number of bona fide gang members in King County. The "more than 10,000" stat comes courtesy of the King County Sheriff's Office via the FBI. It includes alleged "gang affiliates" -- people who sometimes associate with gang members but aren't actually in the gang.*

Since gang members are constantly going to prison, leaving town, or quitting the gang life, their true numbers are constantly in flux and exceedingly difficult to pin down. In comparison to the FBI's best guess, the ATF's Violent Gang Task Force estimates that there are around 2,000 active gang members in the greater Seattle area. And it's important to note that encompasses gang members of every ethnicity -- African-American, Korean, Russian, Caucasian, etc. -- not just Latinos.

As for the 29 homicides, a number cited by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg last week when he pleaded with the County Council for more funding to prosecute gang cases, just a fraction of those were committed by Latino gangs. Asked for examples of Latino gang homicides, the prosecutor's office provided charging documents for five recent murders. Just one involved a Latino gang member, a Norteño, and he stands accused of shooting a member of the Marvin Gangster Crips, a predominantly black street gang.

So how did all this talk of a "Latino gang war" come about? It began, according to various public officials, with the shooting last month at a car show just off Pacific Highway South in Kent that left 12 people wounded. Later that night in Kent, a retaliatory shooting sent another man to the hospital. In an interview earlier this week, Satterberg said there were at least five gunmen exchanging fire in the melee. However, both he and Kent Police acknowledged that the suspects --- who are still at large --- are likely from out of town, possibly from Yakima, Mount Vernon, Centralia and/or Los Angeles.

Satterberg first used the term "war" when addressing the County Council, but backed away from that word when asked about it during an interview later that same week.

"It's a scary word but it's a word the Sheriff's [gang] detective used to describe what's going on," the prosecutor said. "[The car show incident] was a battle in a conflict that shows no signs of simmering down."

But Joe Gagliardi, the gang detective in the King County Sheriff's Office, also played down talk of the "gang war" during a recent interview.

"I guess you could call it a gang war," Gagliardi said reluctantly. "It's basically the rivalries that have existed for awhile that have sparked and intensified because of a couple recent incidents."

Both he and Satterberg acknowledged that there have been no gang-related shootings since the car show fracas on July 23. If a war really has broken out on the streets of South King County, it is a remarkably bloodless one.

Nevertheless, gangs -- particularly of the Latino variety -- are undoubtedly a growing and serious problem in areas like White Center, South Park, Burien, Kent, Auburn, and the Rainier Valley. To that end, the $1.4 million from the County's emergency fund should be money well spent, especially since roughly $461,000 will be budgeted for outreach and prevention initiatives, including salaries for two case workers who will oversee back-to-school and employment programs.

What's more, Satterberg points to a newly-implemented program sponsored by his office called the 180 Project. Approximately 600 cases for first-time gang offenders will be deferred in the coming year if the kids involved agree to participate in a variety of arts, mental health, drug rehab, and mentor programs administered through Zion Prep Academy in Columbia City.

"It's using the power of the prosecuting attorney's office to get these kids help," Satterberg says, "to get them to realize they have choices, they don't have to be gang members."

That's exactly the sort of forward-thinking that Seattle needs when approaching its escalating gang problem, not hyperbole and hysteria that demonizes an entire ethnic group. Unfortunately, it seems that same hyperbole and hysteria is what it takes to convince elected officials and the general public that it is necessary to dip into government coffers and do something about it.

*Updated Wednesday at 12:25 p.m. to reflect that the "more than 10,000" gang members in King County statistic cited by Satterberg and the Sheriff's Office was compiled by the FBI, not a Sheriff's Office database as originally reported.

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