Effort to curb Walla Walla gang problem must continue

Last week's gang homicide makes it clear law enforcement has a huge challenge before it. And so does this community.

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It's been more than two decades since local law enforcement were convinced gang activity was growing in Walla Walla.

Over those years, police officers and sheriff's deputies have worked diligently to keep gang activity under control. Unfortunately the gang problem has been growing faster than the resources available to local law enforcement.

Walla Walla Police Chief Chuck Fulton has feared gang activity - from grafitti to assaults - would lead to killing.

It happened last week.

Tuesday night, 20-year-old Julio Cesar Martinez died after lying in his own blood in an alley. He was shot twice in the head.

Law enforcement officials have seen intensifying gang rivalries and bolder confrontations over the past few years. In March 2010, four men not affiliated with a gang were stabbed, shot or both by gang members in near-fatal attacks on Center Street.

Police last spring warned that Walla Walla probably would see a homicide sometime soon.

"I was really worried. You could feel it," Fulton said last week. "It wasn't a matter of if we'd have a terrible thing happen like this. It was a matter of when."

Gang activity first was suspected in the Valley in 1989 when officers spotted graffiti. Bullets started piercing walls of homes in Walla Walla's west end in February 1993 and shootings quickly became relatively commonplace and more widespread.

Four people were shot in the city in 1994 and by the end of that year, Walla Walla County posted the second highest rate of youth violence in the state.

Gang crimes peaked in 1995, but began to wane as "major players" in the gangs were locked up and prevention programs started to have an impact.

Unfortunately, gang activity began to heat up again about a decade ago. By last year, an estimated 300-500 teens and young adults, almost all males, had joined or were affiliated with area gangs.

Local law enforcement officials are already 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.

But the entire community must be involved.

Education and outreach are the keys to success. Those at risk of getting involved in gangs must be made to understand the dangers and shown alternatives.

Changing the gang culture is critical.

Doing so is, of course, very difficult. And intervention alone won't end the gang problem.

Law enforcement needs community support in this effort to eliminate gang crimes and gang violence.

If you suspect gang activity or see criminal behavior, contact law enforcement. The information you provide could make a difference in keeping a lid on gang crime and gang violence.

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