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Tri-Cities police chiefs talk gangs, education, drug courts

 | Published on 10/31/2009

The Tri-Cities' three police chiefs focused on gangs, education and the impending loss of drug courts while speaking at the Columbia Basin Badger Club's Friday luncheon.

"We have been telling people for some time that we are seeing a resurgence in gang activity," Pasco Police Chief Denis Austin told the crowd of about 75.

He said law enforcement cracked down on gang activity in the 1990s and sent many gang bangers to prison. More than a decade later, they're getting out and returning to the street, he said.

And they're getting smarter. Austin said gang members have begun recruiting juveniles to commit crimes and sell drugs, which allow older members to avoid lengthening their rap sheets.

Austin said Pasco police are taking a proactive approach to disrupting gang activities, such as towing vehicles and mandating court-required "no-association clauses," which restrict who the gang members can hang out with.

"It's hard to do a drive-by shooting if you don't have a car," he told the audience.

Both Austin and Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg said, after being asked what issue they'd most like to work with the community on, that education for both children and parents could combat issues from gang violence to drug use.

"So many of our problems start at a very, very young age," Hohenberg said. "The grass-roots issues would save us all money in the long run."

Austin and Hohenberg touted the United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties' Our Babies Can't Wait program, which teaches parents and caregivers about a child's development, physical, nurturing and bonding needs. The program aims to provide a path for newborns to graduate from high school and succeed in college or the workplace by the time they turn 20.

"We need to educate parents who don't know how to raise young children," Austin said, adding, "It's not just about throwing money at it, it's about volunteering and helping people."

The chiefs also addressed the looming loss of juvenile drug court and the probable closure of adult drug court in Benton and Franklin counties.

"I think we'll feel the ripple effect, but it's not an immediate impact," Richland Police Chief Tony Corsi told the audience.

Hohenberg said, "What it's going to do is continue to add to the criminal justice system in a negative way."

The Kennewick police chief talked about how emotional and powerful drug court graduations can be. Watching people turn their lives around, get educated and hold down jobs, Hohenberg said, is enough to move a man to tears. Without the opportunity, Austin said the consequences could be dire.

"These people are going to be put in jail and we're going to have to care for them," Austin said. "They're going to become repeat offenders."

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