Timely topic at last night’s West Seattle Crime Prevention Council — a briefing from Sergeant Jim Dyment, who leads the Seattle Police Gang Unit. Just a day earlier, we had shared the story of the latest wave of gang-related (or at least gang-inspired) tagging in Highland Park (photo at left), so tagging came up as well as many other topics, including what kind of gang activity is most prevalent in West Seattle. Southwest Precinct reps had something to say about graffiti, too. Read on:
First, Southwest Precinct Lt. Steve Paulsen acknowledged, “We have noticed an increase, or spike, in graffiti – it started earlier in the summer in South Park, not even really gang members. You folks are doing the right thing by getting this stuff down (painting over) as soon as possible.”
From Gang Unit Sgt. Dyment: “Most of the (tags) with 13 you’re seeing around here is an affiliation with Hispanic gangs. We’re seeing it in the Rainier Valley as well,” and he listed various gang names that include the number 13.
Sgt. Dyment says the Gang Unit currently works with a force of eight, five full-time detectives, three “on-loan.” They usually work 7 pm-4 am, Tuesdays through Saturdays, unless there is “some kind of event” for which they need to keep different hours — he cited one example in West Seattle, the Freedom Church funeral last January for a teenager shot in South Seattle, with gang involvement suspected.
“Our primary function is to investigate violent gang crimes — shootings, primarily, that involve gang members.” To the point of which gangs have which ethnic affiliations, Sgt. Dyment said that currently, most of the violence is associated with African-American gangs, mostly Central and South Seattle at the moment, but not limited to those areas: “The gang problem in Seattle is a regional problem, not just a West Seattle problem, not just a city of Seattle problem.”
Within that problem, there’s a code of silence that’s a challenge: “You’ve seen the ‘stop snitchin’ T-shirts? It takes a lot to bring a shooting case to court and actually have witnesses show up and testify.”
As for how to solve the problem: “We’re not going to enforce our way out of it.” Sgt. Dyment said they go to schools, comunity meetings, educating people how to identify gang members – and that identification isn’t always tied to what color clothes they wear: “Every color’s been taken.” Once in a while, there’s a flagrant example, he said, maybe someone who just arrived in town and is, perhaps, dressed in red, all the way to their shoelaces. But he said if a parent is looking in their child’s closet for hints at gang activity, it’s not so much the color as whether there’s new clothes, new shoes, and no clue where that money came from – maybe that’s a sign they’re mixed up in something they shouldn’t be.
Even the affiliations in the area, he said, aren’t as life-and-death as other parts of the country; he offered a word he said he’d “stolen” from someone, “ambigangstrous,” explaining that some people change gangs and “nothing happens, whereas, say, in California, that would be a death sentence.”
He said his unit currently doesn’t have too much reason to spend a lot of time in West Seattle: “Out here we just don’t have the (volume of) shootings and violent crimes relative to other areas of the city. Most of the times we’ve been up here, it’s been an event-based situation, like the Fourth of July on Alki.
He dispelled a couple myths too – those urban legends you’ve heard about shoes thrown over utility wires (not a sign of gang activity, or of anything in particular, even if your mother’s cousin’s brother’s barber’s masseuse claims firsthand knowledge) and headlights flashed or off. And one of the biggest motivations for joining a gang might not be what you expect: It’s the perception of protection. Also, according to Sgt. Dyment, gang members aren’t universally armed: “They have ACCESS to weapons, and can get them if there’s a planned event like a drive-by shooting, which is seldom random, usually targeting other gangs.”
They also have ample access to technology: Gangs are using technology to show off and/or communicate, like YouTube and MySpace. But as for police’s main contact with them, it’s face-to-face: “We know most of them. And when somebody gets shot – it’s usually somebody we know.” And the gang members, he acknowledged, know the officers too: “We’re in uniform, we drive around in black Crown Victorias … they might as well have SPD markings on them, they have spotlights and like 18 antennas.”
The Gang Unit is one of more than a dozen Investigation Units within Seattle Police, all listed here.