Gangs are a reality in the Walla Walla Valley.
That's something most folks would prefer not to acknowledge. Yet, ignoring gangs and all of the problems they create isn't the answer.
Over the past week the Union-Bulletin has taken an in-depth look at the problems in a six-part series "Gangs: A legacy of violence."
"Walla Walla police estimate up to 500 gang members or affiliates live in the Valley, including the Milton-Freewater area. Nearly all are teenage boys or young men and although they descend from a multitude of races and ethnicities, about 90 percent are of Latino heritage," the U-B reported as this series began. "They fight, assault each other with guns and knives, injure innocent bystanders, mar the landscape with graffiti to mark their turfs, and sell narcotics to finance their lifestyles - which pretty much are centered on booze, drugs, adrenalin rushes and instant gratification."
Local law enforcement officials are putting a lot of resources, time and effort into confronting this growing gang problem. So, too, are our schools and a number of private and public agencies.
If the gang problem is allowed to grow it will take a huge toll on the community.
Lives will be lost through violence and drug use.
Education and outreach are the keys to success. The entire community must be involved in curbing this problem. Those at risk of getting involved in gangs must be made to understand the dangers and shown alternatives.
Local schools take gang activity seriously. They have staff members on site, as well as law enforcement officers, who can take action to ensure gang activity doesn't happen at the schools and curb its growth outside of schools.
Much of the focus is at the high school and middle school level. Given the extent of the gang problem and its potential for growth, we would urge officials to put more resources into the elementary school level. Changing the gang culture is critical.
Doing so is also very difficult. Intervention alone won't end the gang problem.
Law enforcement is a weapon that must be used, and used aggressively. That too is occurring in this community. Local police work has determined that gang activity will increase over the summer and it has made plans to stop it - to put the hammer down.
Walla Walla police have a two-man team focusing on gang crimes. Police are adding an additional officer during each of the three daily shifts so the focus will stay on gangs around the clock.
If it were not for the work of local law enforcement as well as the steps taken by the staff at the Juvenile Justice Center - the jail for teenagers - the gang problem in this Valley would be far worse than it is.
People of the Valley have themselves to thank for this as they approved tax hikes that have allowed the Juvenile Justice Center to be built and police to have the resources to battle gang crime.
We must continue to provide support. The gang problem simply can't be ignored.