Budget crunch threatens to shutter reinstated gang unit at King County Sheriff’s Office

The pandemic has left King County with a budget crunch and beginning this week elected officials debate a proposed budget that includes cuts and investments. 

King County Executive Dow Constantine’s proposal includes millions of dollars for community based investments and criminal justice reforms, but also would require slashing hundreds of county jobs. Plus, proposed cuts to law enforcement totals $12.5 million according to a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson.

The cuts also means the gang unit, reinstated in late 2018, would likely end. Families who lost loved ones to gang violence wonder how shifting approaches to public safety impacts our communities.

Tuesday, the King County Council began what’s scheduled to be a week full of debate the proposed 2021 through 2022 budget.

“When I first came in, one of the biggest challenges we were having was gang violence,” said Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta.

Matta says his community, likewise a reality in towns across America, has been dealing with inequities that turn to violence.

Just two years ago, gang violence erupted in Burien. One of the victims was 51-year-old Gabriela Reyes-Dominguez who died when a gang member’s stray bullet flew into her Burien office. The shooting was just one of several incidents that spurred elected leaders to resurrect the King County Sheriff’s Office gang unit.

Gabriel Camarillo-Reyes, Gabriela’s son, spoke to Q13 News and reacted to the possibility of losing a specialized law enforcement team meant to help keep other families from suffering the same tragedy.

“It’s almost surreal and how she went,” he said. “She was one of my best friends.”

To bridge the funding gap, the KCSO says 7 unfilled patrol positions will remain unfilled, overtime will be slashed by 30%, the dive team would be effectively eliminated and spare only 2 of the 4 pilots working in the Air Support Unit.

The team supports search and rescue efforts in and out of King County. It even helped firefighter keep watch over recent wildfires in Pierce County. It’s a bird’s eye view that won’t be able to respond across the region as it once had.

But with Constantine’s cuts come new investments like spending $400 million to house 2,000 chronically homeless by way of a 0.1% sales tax increase. Plus, $2.7 million to pay for community-based diversion programs meant to place about 1,000 of the county’s low-level first-time, non-violent offenders. Another $750,000 would go towards community-based policing programs and $600,000 would go towards reducing gun violence.

As our region’s elected leaders grapple with tough choices and attempting to heed calls for systemic change, a simple and easy solution for Gabriel seems anything but.

“You do have to agree that reform does need to happen, there does need to be changes,” said Gabriel. “At the same time, it’s so hard to decide where do you make those cuts.”