Police gang units: What are they and do we need them?

EVERETT, Wash. – From Snohomish to Pierce counties, we’ve seen an increase in gang violence.

Just months after Everett elected a new mayor, police say a 13-year-old with gang affiliation shot and killed a 14-year-old.

“My focus is on public safety and gang violence. We’re seeing a real uptick and it's frightening, the age of the kids we’re seeing,” said Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin.

To combat that, the Everett Police Department is now working on putting together a new gang unit.

There’s talk of the same thing in King County after 13-year-old Elizabeth Juarez and 19-year-old Eveona Cortez were shot and killed in Burien in late March.

“Talking to the sheriff {Mitzi Johanknecht} today, she would like to get a gang unit, maybe not just in King County maybe not just in Burien, but getting all the agencies involved,” said county sheriff's Sgt. Ryan Abbott.

Jonathan Wender is a 20-year police veteran and the CEO and president of Polis Soultions, a consulting firm that helps train police departments across the nation in partnership with the Department of Justice.  He says now is the time to bring back gang units that were disbanded across the Puget Sound.

“We have an uptick in gang activity now and we want to reallocate those resources to address that issue,” said Wender.

He says gang unit members play a vital role in stopping gun violence.  But he says it means either adding more funding to hire more officers or shifting some current officers and deputies to the newly formed gang unit.

“It means they’re good investigators, they have unimpeachable honesty, they’ve got credibility, they can be firm, and they can be fair,” said Wender.

Wender says gang units are more than just about learning gang signs, or knowing who wears which color, or if this is graffiti or tagging.

“It’s really not a secret who those folks are. The challenge is that you can build up a relationship with them, that you can deal with crimes when they occur but most importantly prevent the crimes from occurring in the first place,” said Wender.

The emotions from a vigil in Burien for the two slain teenagers show the damage gangs can do in a community, but Wender says a gang unit isn’t the only solution.

“It’s not an either-or proposition. Do we need more case workers? Do we need more drug and alcohol treatment, better mental health care? Absolutely,” said Wender.

In about a month, Everett police say they’ll have the groundwork laid for the new gang unit.  It’ll be just in time for the normal uptick in gun and gang violence we normally see across the area during the warmer, summer months.