School's out, the weather is warming up and law enforcement is bracing for a hotbed of gang activity.
"Right now we have all of the ingredients of a recipe for an absolute disaster this summer," said Walla Walla police Detective Kevin Bayne. He's referring to a growing number of street-smart, second-generation gangsters; intensifying bad blood between local groups as exemplified by a recent spate of rival graffiti; and bolder, more defiant confrontations.
Bayne's colleague, Detective Saul Reyna, said, "We're hearing from the gang members themselves it's going to be busy."
"It's simmering," echoed College Place police Sgt. Todd Smith.
So those agencies, the Walla Walla County Sheriff's Office and other jurisdictions plan to ramp up enforcement and join together to attack gang activity at every level.
Reyna and Bayne make up the two-man team focusing on gang crimes within the city limits of Walla Walla. But recently police have assigned one additional officer during each of the three daily shifts to target gang hot spots.
"Basically we'll focus on gangs 24 hours now," Bayne said.
Also, sheriff's Deputy Luke Watson will be available to assist and is among law enforcement officers from throughout the region taking part in monthly informational forums.
"We're hoping to take cooperation to the next level," Bayne said.
In addition, as a show of force, Walla Walla police will have a no-tolerance approach to violations of any kind by gang members, according to Sgt. Randy Allessio. For instance, those stopped for speeding will get tickets, no warnings.
"This summer we need to have a concerted effort," Allessio said, to get across the message: "You started the game, partner. We're going to finish it. Because we can't lose."
Officials said they're seeing a disturbing ramp-up of aggressive gang behavior, with posturing, shrugging and testing of boundaries. No perceived disrespect goes unanswered. Gang members have started to challenge officers openly, confront innocent strangers at local bars and even threaten their parents with deportation if they dare report their illegal activity.
Drive-by shootings were commonplace in the 1990s and still occasionally occur. But those may be seen as cowardly now.
"(Gang members are) getting braver. These guys are more in-your-face," Allessio said.
The city's gang unit investigates related crime, conducts follow-up interviews and tries to build a rapport with gang members. Once an officer becomes familiar to them, "They get loose-lipped," Reyna said. "You gain a ton of intelligence and get to know who the players are because they are getting younger."
And the younger ones have more to prove, said Watson. They also can be key to detecting new warnings, gang signs and attire. Watson, for instance, performs security at quinceaeras where he's observed belt-dangling, rosary beads, monochromatic shirts and even specific-colored shoestrings.
The primary responsibility of police in the three-pronged approach to battling gangs is suppression - solving crimes and locking up the perpetrators.
"I think we are dedicated in the suppression area. But I think there are holes in intervention and prevention," Bayne said.
The city hosts programs such as block watch and crime-free rental housing, but nothing specifically to combat the gang problem.
As time allows, police offer home visits and discussions with parents when they step forward for help. Prevention at an early age is key, according to officials.
"If we don't do something on the prevention side, we're fighting a battle that's coming back again and again and again," Bayne said. "It's like bailing out a boat."
But officials say assisting in prevention at home often is difficult. When kids learn the behavior there from older siblings or perhaps even parents, they're programmed to accept those values, Bayne explained.
"It's become a lifestyle," as Smith put it.
Even if a family member isn't part of a gang, parents may be in denial about their child's involvement. They also may be convinced by the teenager the activity is a normal part of American culture and otherwise be misled because of their inability to speak English, or be cowed by the youth's aggressive behavior.
"And that carries on into the school," sheriff's Capt. Bill White said. "Someone looks at them wrong and they'll take you down."
Some strict discipline can be enforced, he added. For instance, Labor Camp Homes has instituted a one-time-warning-and-you're-out policy regarding gang behavior.
"It's calmed some things down," he said.
But to instill responsibility, discipline and respect in would-be gangsters, efforts need to be made early in a child's development, according to Kevin Braman, the Police Department's resource officer based at Lincoln Alternative High School.
"Most of (the gang members) at the high school level are so ingrained they don't want to get out," Braman said, adding that perhaps prevention programs such as Gang Resistance Education And Training should be implemented, focusing on elementary kids.
"I'm there to help them, but at the high school level, in my opinion it's a little late."
Allessio said perhaps society needs to make a concerted effort to train parents in the English language and provide more support for working mothers to stay home and supervise their children. A key element is to instill self-worth, discipline and responsibility into vulnerable teens.
"It needs to come from the county, city, schools," he said. "We have to find a way to make these people feel accepted." Otherwise the attitude will remain, "If you don't let me in your group, I'm going to find one and it may not be good."
In general, according to Smith, "(We need to foster) a stronger relationship between Hispanics and other parts of the community."
Money to construct a gang database in the area could reap benefits, Allessio believes, particularly since the national trend in gang recruitment now focuses on rural areas.
Officials don't know how closely local gangs are affiliated with big-city counterparts. But they are aware cartels are employing at the street level. And with the discovery here of large amounts of money and drugs, "We're seeing more direct ties to California," Bayne said.
"The ties are a lot more than we expected. It's definitely there. They depend on drugs for their money. The upper echelon of our gangs is connected. They recruit kids (because juvenile courts are usually more lenient). They're gang mentors."
The biggest hurdle, perhaps, is convincing and educating a still-reluctant local populace that gangs here are a serious, dangerous business.
"Socially we have pulled our horns in," said Allessio. "If it doesn't really touch us personally, it isn't such a big deal."
And Bayne pointed out that even with recent assaults that led to serious injuries, Walla Walla so far has escaped a gang-related death.
This may be the year, Bayne warned. "We've literally been dodging bullets. But we haven't had a gang-related homicide, so unfortunately it bolsters the argument from the skeptics."
White agreed and predicted, "It will take a major tragedy" for most residents to get involved in seeking a solution.
In the meantime, officers say they're ready to spring into action and lock up as many perpetrators as possible for as long as they can. After all, that strategy helped reduce the problem in the 1990s.
"I'm not so naive to think we'll erase gangs from Walla Walla, but I think we can make a dent and make it manageable in the community," Bayne said.
Terry McConn can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8319.