Kent taking a varied approach to gang activity
Roland Along - Mitchell Roland
Western Washington has a rise in gang activity, and the city of Kent is no exception.
A rise of gang activity in a city that is understaffed with officers is not a good combination.
This situation has led to tough decisions and has forced outside of the box thinking.
Former chief of police Ken Thomas describes gang activity in Kent as "top priority" and said that "we can't keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result."
The former chief said that department was working on "exciting new things."
One program that the former chief was excited about is called "shots fired," and involves the King County prosecutor and other local police departments.
The program compiles data from all of the gang activity that happens in the region, and tracks people who are connected to both the victims and the people who commit the crimes. It looks at trends and tries to find people who are connected to multiple people in gang activity.
Thomas calls these people "influencers."
Social workers then go talk to people who are connected to people with gang activity and try to intervene.
Chief Thomas called the approach "social networking," and said that it is a first of its kind programs.
Thomas said that they wanted to "try to attack the problem by looking at the influences."
Another new thing that the city is taking is looking at the issue as a "public health" crisis.
At the same time though, Thomas said that the police would still be using "old school tactics" against gangs and said that simply having a presence in troubled communities makes a difference.
"I don't know of one silver bullet that's going to fix the problem," Thomas said.
Thomas said that they "we need to go after [gangs] hard and aggressive," because one of his biggest fears is an innocent bystander being injured or killed and he wants to prevent tragedies.
The main trouble area in Kent is on the east hill along Benson road, the chief said.
But Thomas also said that the problem is cyclical and that "there's been times where it is way worse than it is now."
The police department is doing outreach in schools in the area and that "we're trying to make a difference in our own community."
The police department can only do so much with what they have. Kent voters recently turned down a proposition that would have allowed the city to hire 23 additional officers.
Ralph said that "Kent has the lowest number of officers" per one thousand residents of any surrounding city.
Mayor Ralph also said that officers are being forced to work mandatory overtime and sometimes have to work 16-hour days back-to-back.
"I'm trying to operate a police department that's understaffed by about 40 officers," Ralph said.
On Tuesday after visiting Highline, the mayor announced that Chief Thomas had resigned and that she had appointed Rafael Padilla to lead the department.
At this time, it is unclear how the change in command will impact the departments approach to gang activity.
After the failed vote, the Ralph said that there is no plan B to hiring new officers.
"The best I can do is keep it status quo," Ralph said.
The mayor also said that the department was having to pull officers off a regional gang task force in order for them to do street patrols.
The former chief warned after the vote that they are running short handed and that there will be a little bit longer response times but said "we're going to continue to do the very best we can."
But one thing is for sure, and it is that something needs to be done. Looking at the issue as a public health crisis is a good step. It's not that people choose crime, it's that they don't have another option.
People can feel stuck, and think that there is no other way. By showing them another path, people would no longer feel the need to join crime.