The warning signs are flashing red in Tacoma: Gang violence is erupting in some of the neighborhoods that were spattered with the blood of disaffected young men and boys 30 years ago. And our community had better start taking steps to stem the tide.
That includes giving the Tacoma Police Department enough resources to re-equip its stripped-down gang unit. Over time, TPD has lost staff, visibility and intelligence capacity — assets it developed to counter crack-dealing gangsters who moved here from Los Angeles and took over the East Side and Hilltop in the late 1980s.
Not so long ago, the warning signs were merely flashing bright orange. Conditions were set for a new wave of deadly gang activity in Tacoma. The violent crime rate settled at nearly triple the state average, with aggravated assaults far surpassing other large Washington cities (Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver and Lakewood).
But a fairly low number of gang-related homicides — none were recorded in 2016 and 2017 — fostered a false sense of security, and we missed the wake-up call in a Tacoma Gang Assessment produced early this year.
Then came the red-alert news of summer: With more than one-third of the year left, Tacoma had tallied the same number of homicides (18) by mid-August as it had in all of 2018. And while several deaths this year had causes other than gangs, this summer has seen local hospitals and morgues awash in gang-related carnage:
* On July 30, Jamone Pratt was fatally shot in the head while standing on the porch of a South J Street house, allegedly because he threatened to kill a rival gang member and “stomp” his unborn child. Pratt was just 16.
* On Aug. 13, Jamir Holmes and Rigoberto Villagomez-Dillon were killed and three women were wounded in a hail of late-night gunfire near East 38th Street and East Roosevelt Avenue. Holmes was 26, Villagomez-Dillon 19.
* On Sept. 5, an unidentified Tacoma man was left paralyzed after a drive-by shooting on East R Street apparently done in retaliation for the slayings of Holmes and Vilagomez-Dillon. The man is 19.
Mayor Victoria Woodards on Wednesday released a statement saying she was deeply troubled by the months-long rash of gun violence. She pledged a wide-ranging city response that includes additional youth outreach services and violence prevention programs.
Those are worthwhile investments. But it’s telling that the first thing the mayor mentioned was public safety, which no doubt mirrors the first thing on the minds of residents.
“Tacoma Police Department has assigned three detectives to identify those persons responsible for the violent acts,” Woodards said, “and to work with a Special Emphasis Team to locate, arrest and convict them.”
Over the short-term that makes good sense. But even more important is a long-range commitment by city leaders to re-invest in a TPD gang unit — not just to make arrests, but to collect intelligence during routine patrols, in everyday encounters with gang members and while investigating gang-related crimes.
That’s hard to do in a downsized gang unit. One officer interviewed for the 2019 Gang Assessment noted the challenge of having just two officers and one sergeant, no longer making the rounds in uniforms or patrol cars after being reassigned to the Special Investigations Division.
One of the Assessment’s most alarming findings is gap-riddled data collection, which has left cops with an out-of-date picture of Tacoma’s gang problem.
That picture is quite rosy: The number of gang members identified by Tacoma police actually declined by two thirds between 2011 and 2018, and the age of known members has climbed to an average of 31.5 years old.
But don’t be fooled. “This is indicative of a scenario in which gang intelligence collection has slowed or ceased in recent years, and less information is collected on younger individuals who have more recently become involved in gangs,” according to Gang Assessment authors.
Gang activity seems to be making a comeback, and much of it revolves around young men and boys — like those killed and maimed this summer in Tacoma.
Parents think so. More than 57% of those surveyed for the Assessment said they believe their child could be injured by gang violence.
Community leaders think so. Almost 9 in every 10 of those surveyed said they believe gangs are a problem in Tacoma.
And cops certainly thinks so. Only 11% of those surveyed said they’re satisfied with how Tacoma is currently dealing with the problem.
Gang chaos may never return to Tacoma like the bloody decade that afflicted neighborhoods 30 years ago. We may never get another Trang Dai massacre or a shootout between JBLM soldiers and gang members.
God help us if we do.
But the best insurance policy is a police force with an adequately staffed, trained and equipped gang unit.