Lessons from Tacoma: Fighting gangs is possible, but it takes long-term commitment

TACOMA, Wash. -- It would be natural, considering the gang violence that flares up every few years in King County, to believe that nothing can stop kids’ attraction to gang life.

But in Tacoma, which once had a problem so severe the F.B.I. took note, gang-related violence has declined by 70 percent, according to data from the city’s police department.

Much of the reason may be the city’s adoption of a plan created by the National Gang Center in Florida, which does not call for bulked-up police presence. Instead, it required an in-depth study of the problem and targeted intervention using former gang members to reach young people – many of them in middle school. Some are only 9 years old.

“I’ll say, 'Hey, do you want to live a life where you may not see tomorrow?’" caseworker Ben Feldbush tells his young clients. “If you were driving one day and someone shot at you and killed your mom, would you believe that it’s your fault or would you say it’s their fault?’ But you're the one that's the gang member… You’re the one attracting those bullets.'"

Feldbush, a member of the West Side Mafia for much of his life, is one of a handful of caseworkers essential to the Tacoma Gang Reduction Project’s success, which relies on building trust with kids who often trust no one.

“When I work with them, first, I use my experience to bridge that gap – there’s nothing you can say, young man, that I don’t know, 'cause I’ve been there,” Feldbush tells his clients.

Over the past six years, Tacoma has spent about $2 million on its study and outreach efforts, city officials said. The model has also been used across the country, including in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore. But Burien, Kent and Federal Way – the local gang-violence hot spots – are not on that list.

At first, said Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, it was tough to make the case to spend that kind of money on her small city. But she pointed out that without targeted action on gangs, Tacoma’s problems could easily balloon.

Feldbush himself remembers a time when dozens of gang members congregated openly in the Hilltop neighborhood. His own brother spent years in prison for gang-related crimes.

Vicky McLaurin, a manager in the city’s Department of Neighborhood and Community Services, remembers those days, too.

“We always talk about the ‘90s, when we had a gang problem in Tacoma, and that problem doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “It doesn’t exist because the investment that the city is making.”

A police raid on the Feldbush’s family home – where all five brothers were gang-involved – as well as his own impending fatherhood and the chance for an education, convinced Feldbush that he needed to aspire to more than a criminal record.

“I don’t want to worry about getting shot in the face. Or going to prison for the rest of my life. Or maybe getting own of my family members killed,” he thought. “To me, that’s not worth it.”

Now 39, Feldbush is on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology and communications from Tacoma Community College and hopes to follow that up with a master's degree in public administration.

“All these kids have dreams,” he said, recalling his own days on the street. “I had dreams, but I didn’t know how to achieve those dreams.”

Importantly, the Tacoma project relies on young people identifying themselves as gang members and asking for help.

“I’m not here to tell you what to do,” Feldbush explains to them. “I want to know what you want to do. Tell me, what are your dreams?”

But McLaurin in City Hall points out that Tacoma has been fighting this battle and refining its approach for two decades – including six years with the current project.

“If you’re expecting for it to work overnight, it’s not gonna happen,” she said. “It does take time.”