Gang activity is alive and well, and property crimes are on the rise in Spokane Valley, according to local law-enforcement officials.
At a presentation Tuesday night before the City Council, Spokane Valley Police Chief Rick VanLeuven said the report was intended “to make you aware, not paranoid” about the current crime trends in the city – including recent shootings -- which are largely fueled by illegal drug use and trafficking.
While often underfunded and more resources would always be welcomed, Sgt. Michael Kittilstved told the council that group like the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Gang Unit and the Spokane Gang Enforcement Team are working with federal agents to crack down on gang activity.
“We’re not doing nothing,” Kittilstved said. “We’re definitely doing something.”
Gangs migrated to the Northwest from California in the 1990s after it became more difficult to operate there and drugs would sell in the Spokane area for up to four times more than in cities like Los Angeles. Many criminals found they could get a “new start” here, Kittilstved said.
Since January 2008, law enforcement has handled over 900 gang-related cases, including over 500 firearms-related charges. Over 450 violent crime arrests have been made, as well.
Unfortunately, Kittilstved added, it’s not uncommon for children to grow up in a gang culture or for youths to be recruited in neighborhoods, schools, juvenile detention or parties.
“We do have gang violence and we do have children involved,” he said. “It spreads into children and families.”
As for graffiti, only about 10 percent that is seen in the Spokane Valley area is gang-related. Most, said Kittilstved, is tagging that still must be removed quickly.
“Nobody really wants to see it,” he said.
VanLeuven said, however, that it is important to get it photographed before it’s painted over in order to determine what kind it is.
Both stressed that community involvement is the best way to confront a proliferation of gang activity.
On the topic of property crimes, Lt. John Nowels of the Spokane Valley Property Crimes Unit said that vehicle thefts have spiked in recent weeks – up 25 percent from this same time last year.
Contrary to what many believe, local law enforcement takes property crimes very seriously, he said.
“We’ve changed the way we do business,” Nowels said.
“When people invade your homes and vehicles, that affects us personally,” added VanLeuven.
When it comes to stolen cars, up to 80 percent end up being recovered, suggesting there isn’t a large amount of “chop shop” activity going on, Nowels said. However, personal information found in cars can lead to the “secondary crime” of identity theft.
A recent property crimes emphasis has resulted in vehicle prowling being reduced by 24 percent from last year. In one case, when a particular individual was arrested, vehicle prowling dropped by 44 percent in the eastern area of the Valley from the month before.
“What is going to stop the revolving door (in the jails),” asked Council Member Arne Woodard. “Recidivism is a big part of the problem.”
Nowels said that efforts such as drug courts and recovery programs “can only help” reduce property crimes, as stolen items are sold in order to buy drugs.
Woodard also referenced a recent shooting in Spokane where a man shot and killed a car thief who was driving away from the scene.
“If you feel your life is threatened, you can protect yourself with deadly force,” Nowels said. “But a car isn’t worth somebody’s life.”