Guest commentary by Sheriff Elfo to the Bellingham Herald
No longer limited to neighborhood graffiti, school yard fights and petty thievery, gang activity has significantly impacted public safety and our quality of life. Once isolated to major metropolitan areas, gangs rapidly extended their network of criminal enterprises, violence and intimidation to communities of all sizes.
Whatcom County experienced increases in both gang activity and the level of organization and sophistication with which they operate. Local gangs are responsible for trafficking in narcotics, firearms and stolen property as well as assaults, robberies, witness tampering and murders. Over the past year, a series of violent shootings reminded us of the dangers gangs pose to law-biding citizens.
The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office adopted standardized gang classification criteria and identified 42 gangs with more than 400 members. While gangs in Whatcom County vary in ideology, ethnicity and origin, most are affiliated with larger regional or nationwide organizations. The expansion of gang activity into Whatcom County is driven by a variety of factors including illegal profits, our nexus with the international border and the presence of disaffected and vulnerable youth.
While other Washington communities experienced more dramatic impacts from increased gang activity, it is essential to maintaining our quality of life and safety that our citizens are aware of the extent and nature of this problem. Suppressing gang activity requires strategies of enforcement, intervention and prevention as well as a commitment of no tolerance. It is important that the community understands this problem and supports efforts to eradicate it.
To combat gangs, local, state and federal law enforcement must coordinate efforts and share information. Systems for identifying and classifying gangs and gang members allow law enforcement to direct limited resources to those individuals and organizations representing the highest risk to public safety. It also provides prosecutors with the information needed to seek enhanced penalties for gang-related crimes.
Dismantling and discouraging local gangs and gang activity requires enforcement efforts directed at all level of gang organizations. Working with all local police departments, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office coordinates and deploys street-level enforcement operations. A recent operation resulted in the arrests of 20 wanted gang members and affiliates on charges ranging from escape, theft, and narcotics to weapons violations, child molestation and the failure to register as sex offenders.
The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office refocused its Northwest Regional Drug Task Force toward gang-related drug and firearms trafficking. It recently co-located the task force with the local DEA office for the purpose of conducting joint strategic investigations into the leadership and activities of complex criminal gang organizations. Recent successes include the arrest of the head of “The Hated,” a white supremacist organization that was heavily involved in methamphetamine and heroin distribution, firearm violations, property crime, fraud and the corruption of a public official.
Other segments of the criminal justice system are working with law enforcement to increase focus on gang members. The Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office prioritized the prosecution of identified gang members, and a seasoned Whatcom County sheriff’s detective works with prosecutors to help ensure serious gang crimes are thoroughly investigated and witnesses are not intimidated from cooperating.
The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office formed a partnership with the state Department of Corrections that co-located a community-corrections officer within the Sheriff’s Office to focus on serious habitual criminals released from prison under state supervision. Many gang members unlawfully entered the United States, and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office coordinates with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure their removal once sentences are served.
While law enforcement continues to focus on arresting and building solid cases against gang members, prevention remains a critical component of our community’s gang response. A sheriff’s deputy works with educators and community groups to increase awareness of the presence of gangs and their activities.
The Whatcom Community and Family Network and the county Health Department are seeking to partner with nonprofits to develop prevention strategies that include providing mentorships, after-school activities and other options that will help adolescents avoid being lured into the destructive and often inescapable gang lifestyle and culture.
With the community’s support, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office will continue to lead efforts to drive this menace from Whatcom County.
Bill Elfo is the Whatcom County Sheriff.