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Gangs flock to county's west end

Semi-rural town a haven for criminals moving from urban areas


Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO: FOREST GROVE POLICE DEPARTMENT - This gun and brass knuckles were recovered from a known gang member caught following a foot pursuit near Pacific Avenue and Yew Street.Forest Grove and Cornelius hold only 6 percent of Washington County’s population. But they hold 22 percent of the county’s 1,500 gang members, according to Forest Grove Police Officer Matt Jacobsen, a member of the county’s Interagency Gang Enforcement Team.

“Forest Grove’s attractiveness is not limited to the best of society,” said Jacobsen, who presented an update on local gang activity at the Jan. 26 Forest Grove City Council meeting. In fact, he said, semi-rural towns such as Forest Grove can become havens for criminal elements moving from more metropolitan areas.

The disproportional presence of gang members here started, perhaps ironically, when families moved to Forest Grove from areas such as Hillsboro to get away from gangs, Jacobsen said. Parents intend to provide a better life for their children, but “gang activity ends up spreading like a disease,” he said.

At the meeting, councilors inspected examples of homemade gang weapons as Jacobsen passed around an assortment of crudely fashioned knives known as “shanks” and colored bandanas used as makeshift maces when filled with bolts.

Local gang members figured out a way to sidestep the law by carrying wrenches or bolts, Jacobsen said, because if stopped by police, those items can be passed off as tools for their cars — unlike knives or switchblades.Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO: FOREST GROVE POLICE DEPARTMENT - A modified knife (it was half of a garden sheer) was seized during a subject stop at 23rd Avenue and Main Street after it was found in the waistband of a known gang member. 

“We must reinvent ourselves,” he said. “We have to be ever-changing, ever-adapting to our environment — just like they are.”

Violence is the norm for gangs, which are constantly looking for ways to make money, Jacobsen said, citing a 2012 robbery and 2013 assault with a padlock in Forest Grove. Such activity is not rampant here, he said, but it’s not rare either, with at least 25 gang-related calls for 2013, not counting graffiti calls.

According to Jacobsen, the Hispanic Sureño and Norteño gangs are the predominate source of local gang activity. The groups, identified by a blue “13” and red “14,” respectively, migrated from larger bodies in California. “Gang migration is a worldwide phenomenon,” Jacobsen agreed. “It’s not just local.” It includes skinhead white supremacists, black gangs such as the Crips and Bloods, and everything in between.

Geneva Jackson, director of CREATE, a Cornelius-based program that reaches out to at-risk youth, agrees. Contacted after the meeting, Jackson said many local residents see gangs solely as a Latino phenomenon. But that stereotype is inaccurate and harmful, she said. Through her job, Jackson has spoken with many non-Latino youth who are interested in gangs.

Councilor Tom Johnston, who served 30 years as a Forest Grove police officer, said gangs are always a presence in the area but that a good education is key to keeping youth out of gangs. Without the positive relationships and role models and knowledge children can find in school, he said, they are more likely to follow in the footsteps of wayward older siblings.

Jacobsen said lengthy prison sentences for gang members can also help.

“We’ve had some tremendous wins for us in the past year,” he said. But the downside to those victories is that prison can serve as a sort of “criminal college,” Jacobsen said, with inmates often coming out worse than before.

The Oregon Department of Corrections offers no rehabilitation programs specifically for gang members, said DOC Communications Manager Betty Bernt. But it does offer anger management, family/parenting, drug/alcohol and other programs that could help gang members leave the gang lifestyle.

JacobsenAnd the Washington County Juvenile Department has a specialized team that works with gang-affected youth.

“There’s an ongoing tension between punishment and rehabilitation,” Jacobsen said. But police are so busy keeping track of current gang members they don’t have time to wonder about those they’ve already sent to prison.

“Are the programs actually working? It’s overwhelming for a cop on the street to think about.”

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