With 300 gangs and counting, King County leaders look to revive disbanded gang unit

SEATTLE -- King County is home to 300 different gangs, a number county leaders say has grown over the past two decades.

That's why many are wondering why the King County Sheriff's Office got rid of its gang unit in 2014 -- and what it will take to make a new one successful.

Two high-profile, gang-related shootings in Burien this year have sparked community outrage and a demand for more law enforcement targeting gang activity.

In March, two girls, 13-year-old Elizabeth Juarez and 19-year-old  Eveona Cortez, were gunned down outside an apartment complex.

Six months later, in September, 51-year-old Gabriela Reyes-Dominguez was hit by a stray bullet in broad daylight while working at a chiropractor's office. Three teenage gang members have been arrested in her death.

Not long after the death of Reyes-Dominguez, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht pledged to put a new gang unit together.

She said she's seen the gang unit come and go during her decades with the sheriff's office.

"Those are decisions made by other sheriffs, and often times have to do with budgetary decisions," Johanknecht said.

King County Councilman Dan Upthegrove, who chairs the budget committee, says he's pushing for $900,000 in new funding for a gang unit, a number that's been floated by Johanknecht since talks of a new gang unit resurfaced.

"It takes something you see on the news, and it makes it very real, and sadly there's too much of that for too many people, especially in South King County," Upthegrove said.

The $900,000 would fund two detectives working full-time on gang activity, as well as other resources for investigating gangs.

But the gang unit would include more than just two detectives from King County. It would also need other law enforcement agencies, as well as schools and nonprofits across the Puget Sound to be successful, Johanknecht said.

That's what will separate this gang unit from its predecessors.

"I've seen a variety of different gang throughout my career in the sheriff's office," Johanknecht said. "We need to keep intact into the future, and if we do it regionally and share costs across agencies, it benefits all agencies. There's ways to make it sustainable."

News of the regional gang unit moving forward does little to comfort the friends and family of Reyes-Dominguez.

"It would be nice to know that two cops added will stop the whole world and makes everything better, but it's not," a coworker told Q13.

Upthegrove admits that two detectives aren't enough, but it's a start.

"This isn't going to solve the gang problem, but this will help make a difference, maybe save some lives, maybe get some gang members off the street, and maybe make our communities a little safer," he said.

Upthegrove also points to a voter-approved, six-year levy that will generate $400 million a year, in part for youth violence prevention programs with proven track records. But he says the county cannot focus only on prevention.

"When someone fires a shot into the window of your business, you can't call a diversion program or a prevention program, we need law enforcement officers who can respond," he said.

The King County Sheriff's Office will likely promote existing deputies into the gang unit if the council approves the funding. That still leaves 40 open positions at the sheriff's office.

The council is expected to vote on the budget Nov. 13.