The transient nature of gangs in South King County

In this 2012 file photo, Federal Way police investigate the scene of a fatal shooting at Johnny
In this 2012 file photo, Federal Way police investigate the scene of a fatal shooting at Johnny's Bar and Grill, 2318 SW 336th St.
— image credit: Mirror file photo

Federal Way’s first homicide of 2012 involved gangs.

In the early morning hours of June 27, tension escalated among a crowd of gang members outside a Federal Way bar. A mix of black and Mexican males argued, flashed gang signs and yelled out affiliations with the Gangster Disciples and Rollin 90’s Crips.

The dispute reached a boiling point when guns were drawn. The crowd was sprayed with bullets. Six people were shot and one man — 23-year-old Cloise Young of Kent — was killed in the parking lot of Johnny’s Famous Bar and Grill.

Witnesses reported that Young exchanged words with Renton resident Kenneth Sutton before the shooting. Sutton was arrested and charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault.

The bar has since closed and changed its name. However, at the time, Federal Way police reported that the parking lot outside Johnny’s was a magnet for gang trouble. Rowdy crowds often congregated and consumed alcohol before going inside. Police had reported multiple arrests for assault, firearms violations and malicious mischief.

This is only one example of gang violence to erupt in Federal Way. Later this year, the Suburban King County Coordinating Council on Gangs will release a comprehensive study of gang activity in suburban cities, with updated data from 2012. The council’s goal is to reduce youth violence and gang activity by fostering better communication among local law enforcement and governments.

A July 2011 gang shooting at a Kent car show led to a renewed emphasis on gang enforcement. Six alleged gang members were arrested after injuring 12 people in that incident. A month later, King County reacted with a $1.4 million proposal to combat gangs and crime. With a history of previous cooperation, police agencies formed a regional task force to battle crimes associated with gangs like auto theft, burglaries, drugs and prostitution.

The county has reported that gang-related crime has increased 165 percent since 2005, with much of that crime shifting out of Seattle city limits into South King County.

Most gang-related crimes are committed by people who live outside the communities where the crimes occur. Unlike the big cities with established gang turf, the gang territory in South King County is more informal and spread out.

Gang members are transient in nature, and every city’s goal is to push them out. One thing that adds to the gang presence is cheaper apartment housing, which is plentiful in South King County.

“Gangs don’t observe city limits,” said Auburn Police Cmdr. Mike Hirman, noting that pressure on known gang members has led many to move elsewhere. “They just go where they’re comfortable.”

Only a small portion of Auburn’s law enforcement efforts are directed specifically at gangs.

“I don’t want to give the impression that there is a gang problem,” Hirman said. “Really what it comes down to is we have individuals with a propensity for violence and they travel all over the place… We don’t have rival gangs shooting it out down here.”

Auburn assigns two police officers to a response team whose duties include dealing with gangs. If an officer identifies a repeat problem, police will concentrate their efforts on that problem. Examples include an apartment complex with residents who had ties to the Rancho San Pedro gang, or even a batch of Juggalos — fans of rap group Insane Clown Posse — harassing library patrons.

The Kent Police Department’s special investigations unit has one detective whose primary focus is gang activity. Police pressure identified gang members, who will eventually leave the city “because they didn’t like the attention,” Lt. Lowery said. “We all know we have gang members who live in our communities in little pockets and we know they all move around.”

Lowery added that when his officers put pressure on the gang members, they don’t disappear, but simply go to another area.

“As long as we have at-risk youth, (gang activity is) going to appear attractive for a very small number of people,” Lowery said. “It fills a void in their life.”

Federal Way has two police officers assigned to gang matters as part of their overall duties. Police Chief Brian Wilson said the department routinely shares information and intelligence among regional law enforcement agencies.

“We’re in this together,” Wilson said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

What is a gang?

Last week, The Mirror explored the gangs found in the area in a report called "The reality of criminal gangs in South King County." Pictured above is gang graffiti found in August 2012 at Steel Lake Park (photo courtesy of the blog called Northwest Gangs).

Crime stats, etc.

Common crimes associated with gang activity include auto theft, burglaries, drugs and prostitution. Gang wars also lead to gun violence in public settings.

• Federal Way has experienced about a 24 percent increase in residential burglaries, going from 752 burglaries in 2011 to 929 reported in 2012 — the highest total in five years. Auto theft increased 12 percent from 693 incidents in 2011, to 779 thefts reported in 2012. Federal Way has a population of about 90,000.

• Kent has a population of about 119,000. In 2012, police reported a slight increase in the number of burglaries at 1,239, compared to 1,223 burglaries in 2011. Auto theft increase from 789 in 2011 to 864 in 2012.

• Auburn is a city of about 71,000 residents. In 2012, police reported 983 burglaries, compared to 762 in 2011. Auto theft remained relatively unchanged, with 588 in 2012 compared to 600 in 2011.

• According to an Oct. 2011 report in The Mirror, there are an estimated 12,000 gang members in King County, with about 143 active criminal street gangs. According to the King County Sheriff’s Office, 87 of those gangs are active in South King County and 46 have at least 15 members each.


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