Walla Walla has been working really hard on its reputation the past few decades.
Once known primarily as home to the Washington State Penitentiary, tourists now are hearing through the grapevine about wine, an award-winning downtown and cultural opportunities.
But the concept of a classy, little city doesn't jibe well with mental pictures of gang fights, shootings in middle-class neighborhoods and graffiti scrawled on chic restaurants.
Ask Yakima. It's hard to shake a frightening, costly and destructive gang image.
And it's not just that area that's plagued. Officials say the problem is statewide -- in Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma -- and right here. Therefore, state laws have been enacted to target gang activity.
In 2008, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law what was dubbed a criminal street gang measure.
Included in the law is the following definition of a gang: "any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, having as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal acts, and whose members or associates individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal street gang activity."
Among other provisions, the law outlines grant programs for local law enforcement activities and graffiti abatement in areas with high levels of crime, and new categories of offenses to punish adults who involve juveniles in felonies and to target tagging, according to the governor's office.
But one 17-year-old "sometime" gang member told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shortly before the bill became law that it would be ineffective.
"That's not going to work," the youth said, laughing. "The older gang members won't care. They're going to do what they do anyway."
Also, many law enforcement officials expressed dismay that the Legislature gutted a prevention aspect of the bill, saying suppression efforts alone will be futile.
Being a gang member isn't against the law, per se, although statutes exist to try to control the activity. Gang intimidation of a prospective member who refuses to join or a member who wants out is unlawful, school districts are allowed to enforce dress codes and a process is in place for neighbors to force eviction of tenants engaged in dangerous gang activity.
But state Attorney General Rob McKenna wants to go further.
He's proposing tougher penalties for gang-related crimes, creation of tools that would allow cities to shut down gang houses and initiation of more prevention programs.
In addition, McKenna would like the Legislature to pass a civil injunction statute based on several currently in place in California and other states. Under such laws, a community can identify problem areas and gather evidence against specific gang members, then sue them and acquire restraining orders.
The orders can prohibit such activity as stepping onto private property, violating a curfew, littering and congregating in groups for certain purposes.
Walla Walla County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle supports the concept of civil injunctions, but questions their practicality.
"Those types of techniques are excellent, but extremely labor intensive," he said. "If you have the resources, you can do it very, very well."
Like others involved in the criminal justice system, Nagle's office tackles the aftermath of the gang problem. Lawyers pore over investigative reports to determine the nature of crimes and whether sufficient evidence exists to charge and convict suspects. As officials discovered in the 1990s, aggressive prosecution can be a deterrent if enough defendants are caught and put away for a long time.
State lawmakers have identified gang involvement as an aggravating factor that can lead to an exceptionally long prison term for a perpetrator, Nagle pointed out. And a no-tolerance policy of enforcement, as Walla Walla police plan this summer, is not unfair or selective prosecution.
"It's permissible (under the law) to discriminate against gang members," Nagle said. "The gang problem must be stopped and we're charged with upholding the law. To the extent we can, we will prosecute gang members with extreme prejudice."
Deputy Prosecutor Joe Golden, who handles many of the gang cases, works closely with detectives to identify gang-related crimes and the criminals who don't deserve a second chance.
"If we hammer the gang members, the word gets out," Golden said. "If there's a real emphasis on gangs, they back off."
Walla Walla County Superior Court judges have taken a get-tough approach, particularly during the 1990s. Judge Donald W. Schacht sentenced one gang member in 1995 to nearly 18 years in prison for shooting at two people the previous fall. No one was hurt, but Schacht told the defendant at the time, "Our society cannot, and this court will not, tolerate these random acts of violence. You just can't shoot at people."
Schacht reiterated his stance last fall in sentencing a man involved in a June 2009 gang-related melee outside St. Patrick Catholic Church. He categorized gang activity as "stupid" and classified members as not obeying the law, generally not working and harming people.
"If you get involved in this gang lifestyle, it's just a dead end," he said.
Schacht's colleague, Judge John Lohrmann, who is in his second year on the Superior Court bench, also has warned gang members in court hearings about repeat offenses.
Recently, he told one such defendant: "You've got to get your head straightened around and live your life based on hard work and sweat, and not on gang affiliations or stealing."
Prosecutors particularly seek long sentences for gang leaders and those involved in violent offenses. That doesn't mean, however, that plea deals are not negotiated and occasionally charges dropped. Gang members are notorious for keeping quiet and not ratting out their associates. Sometimes that lack of cooperation and subsequent insufficiency of evidence require level heads to prevail.
"It's easy to make a blanket statement that we'll nail every gang-banger out there. But in reality it doesn't really work that way," Golden said. "Sometimes it's more important to get a conviction than hammering somebody on a particular crime. Their time will come."
The bottom line, Nagle said: "If you get an acquittal by a jury, you get nothing."
The officials examine each offense on a case-by-case basis.
"The nature of the crime has a lot to do with it," Golden said. "And if (gang unit detectives) want to make an example out of someone or make a point, I'll do whatever -- if it's reasonable."
Nagle and Golden believe more perpetrators would be locked up if more officers could be hired. "You've got to invest highly in law enforcement resources if you're going after this," Nagle said.
But the officials agree the only lasting solution will come from education and prevention.
"Unless you have something to prevent gangs from forming, they're going to form," Nagle said. "We should have learned from past experience it doesn't do any good to wait 'til the problem happens and then try to fix it."
Terry McConn can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8319.
A look at the laws