GANGS - Local venues face trying to prevent gang activity at functions

Venues for major get-togethers face a fine balance in trying to prevent gang activity.

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WALLA WALLA -- One of the biggest riots in the community's history remains a story riddled with holes.

That June night one year ago the plan was that two different families would hold graduation parties in separate sections of the St. Patrick Catholic Church campus on Poplar Street, said the Rev. Patrick Kerst.

Around midnight a police officer called Kerst at home. A clash among rival gang members had erupted with an unexpected visit from party crashers, the officer explained. Anywhere from 60 to 100 people had clogged the church's parking lot as the violence flared out of control.

By the time of the call, the fight had moved off the church grounds into a parking lot at Providence St. Mary Medical Center, where one person had been beaten unconscious with a bat. But the damage at the church was done -- both for future graduation parties at the facility and for what Kerst shudders to think of as an eternal association between the facility and a now notorious gang fight.

As gang activity creeps into public and private places, operators are forced to rethink what kinds of events they want at their facilities.

The challenge is this: Close the doors to events permanently and a safe environment for peaceful gatherers goes with it. On the other hand, measures must be taken to protect people and property.

That was the case last year during the Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days, said Walla Walla County Sheriff Mike Humphreys.

After a gang-related stabbing at the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede in May 2009, officials wanted to beef up the law-enforcement presence during the fair. The Sheriff's Office teamed up with the cities of Walla Walla and College Place, the Department of Corrections and Juvenile Justice officials to staff the grounds.

"We look at areas where we've had problems before," Humphreys explained. "That's where we post officers. Everybody is not necessarily in uniform out there."

He said he and other officials met with Fair Manager Cory Hewitt after the spring gang fight more than a year ago when one person was stabbed in the neck and another in the eye.

"We looked at things and brainstormed with the county commissioners, fair manager and law enforcement and looked at how we were doing things," Humphreys said.

Whether it could have been prevented is the lingering question, he said. Trouble is known to brew when large crowds amass. He said intoxication and domestic disputes are common expectations during the large events. Unlike at St. Pat's the gang fight that broke out at the fairgrounds happened during a public event. So it wouldn't have necessarily prompted changes in the operation's contract regulations for private affairs.

Also unlike the church, the county must be careful about tweaking its regulations so it doesn't discriminate against certain segments of the community.

"It's a facility for the public to use, but it's very important that it's safe and people need to feel safe when they're out there," Humphreys said.

As a private facility, the church has the luxury of being a little more selective with the events it allows. Graduation parties are officially unwelcome as a result of the fight last June. This on top of already restrictive rental policies that require financial deposits and a copy of a written contract for security guards if the party has over a certain number of people. Additional restrictions put a cap on how late events can run and whether alcohol can be brought onto the grounds.

Kerst said he's comfortable using his own judgment based on what's best for the property and the safety of those involved. He has no heartburn about losing an event to the fairgrounds, where visitors must also pay rental fees and hire security.

"When we have tightened up the rules and made them much stricter -- adjusted the charges -- we become a less attractive place, which I don't lose any sleep over," Kerst said. "The best party is somewhere else."

Kerst said while many local gang members would largely identify themselves as Catholic, he feels deeply out of touch with most of them.

"I've done funerals for gang-bangers or those who have gang-bangers in their families," he said. "There will be 100 people, and I won't know any of them."

The disconnect is likely part of the reason he feels so unsure of how the fight that took place there last June escalated.

"I still don't know what happened," he lamented.

Both families hosting the parties were faithful parishioners, joined in the pews every week by the children whose accomplishments they were celebrating that fateful night. Both had assured him that adults would be at the respective parties through the night. Both said gang members were not at their parties.

"This was really the first time that we'd had any problems with allowing families to have parties," Kerst said.

If he has his way, it will also be the last.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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