Gang activity has existed in Clark County for at least the last 20 years and has been increasing in recent years as the economy has worsened. From 2004-2006, the Vancouver Police Department recorded an average of 125 gang-related offenses per year; during the next five years, the average increased to more than 500 per year.
A recent report (Gang Assessment) authored by Professor Clay Mosher of Washington State University Vancouver and funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance found "a significant gang presence [in Clark County], which includes Caucasian gangs, Latino gangs, African-American gangs, as well as several others." (The report can be accessed online at Safe Communities Task Force.
The increase in gang activity has corresponded with an increase in the commission of violent acts. As gangs grow, local rivalries heat up and conflicts escalate. Fights between gang members have erupted in our parks and schools. When fistfights don't deliver the intended message, knives, guns or weapons of convenience are used.
In drawing attention to this issue, the intent is not to be alarmist, but rather to educate. A survey included in the Gang Assessment showed that one-third of residents don't believe gangs are present in our community. It is understandable that some residents would be oblivious — the gang problem does disproportionately impact certain areas of the county. However, the report showed that there isn't an area in Vancouver that is not impacted by gang crime — even the least gang-impacted of Vancouver's 16 police beats still averages nearly 10 gang crimes per year.
To be fair, the gang problem in Clark County is not as serious as it is in other places around the country and even in our own state. But while there is danger in overstating the problem, there is an even greater danger in dismissing it. By ignoring it, it grows.
Gangs have been a problem in the United States for decades. As a result, an impressive body of research has been generated to help communities effectively address gangs, avoiding policies and programs that don't work. We, as a community, must take advantage of this accumulated knowledge.
We know that gangs take root when our core institutions — families, schools, and economic systems — function poorly. We live in a community that functions relatively well in these areas, but it's not working for everyone. There are too many young people who do not enjoy the advantages of a stable family life, there are others who struggle in school, and a large proportion of gang-involved youth are characterized by high levels of adverse childhood experiences (parental incarceration, substance abuse, physical and emotional abuse, and domestic violence, etc.). We must guard against demonizing gang-involved youth — many of them are looking for a place to fit in, a place where they will feel loved, a place where they are important.
As a community, we must address the root causes of gangs if we are going to curb the growing problem. Families need our support. Schools and after-school programs need our support as well. A community our size should have at least one gang outreach program (we currently have none). We need a more coordinated effort in mentoring gang-affected youth; we should have intervention programs in our most at-risk schools.
The community resident survey included in the Gang Assessment revealed that most see gangs as primarily a law enforcement issue. While it is fair to expect the police to respond to crimes committed by youth gang members, it is not reasonable to expect them to address the complex and varying reasons that lead young people to gangs in the first place. As Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt commented, "Suppressing gang crime is a police issue; preventing it, intervening and supporting our youth is a community issue."
If you are interested in helping, attend your local neighborhood association meeting, volunteer at your local school, or contact the Safe Communities Task Force.
Joe Walsh is program coordinator of the Safe Communities Task Force with the Clark County Department of Community Services.