Drug deals, violence and murder.
These are things that you expect to hear about in large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles or Chicago. It’s not something that readily comes to mind when you consider Whatcom County, which has about 203,000 residents living in mostly rural areas.
But Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo says over the last five years he’s seen gang members leave their native pavements and find root in Whatcom soil.
“There are more than 700 confirmed gang members or associates here,” he said. “They represent anywhere from 34 to 37 gangs at any given time. We’ve always had gang wannabes and gang-type activity here, but we didn’t see these national ties to established gangs until about five years ago.”
He said that the proximity to the border, vast stretches such as the Mt. Baker wilderness area and high through traffic make the location ideal. “We’ve seen people from virtually every state pass through our system,” he said. “The gangs take members who are wanted in other states and stash them here until things cool off.”
Elfo pointed out that the sheriff’s department has 84 deputies to cover an area larger than the state of Delaware. “It encompasses 2,150 square miles. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and you have wilderness areas like Baker Lake that we are responsible for. We are spread out far and wide,” he said. “It’s not just a Bellingham problem,” he said. “It may have been that way at one point, but it’s evenly distributed now. There’s been a huge problem in Birch Bay and Everson. It’s county-wide.”
It’s tough to get a grip on the growing problem, so Elfo and his team reached out for help. They’ve been partnering with the Drug Enforcement Agency for the past two years, and recently connected with the U.S. Marshal’s office when five Whatcom County sheriff’s deputies were deputized as U.S. Marshals.
“We don’t have the resources to do it alone,” he said. “Most agencies don’t. We’re trying to develop as many partnerships as we can. We’ve been working with the marshals informally, but they suggested we take it to the next level.” The partnerships give the sheriff’s office access to advanced tracking equipment, better intelligence gathering and information sharing and, perhaps most importantly, extra bodies.
Together, they’ve developed the Northwest Regional Gang and Drug Task Force to tackle the problem head-on. Local law enforcement agencies and Homeland Security join in the hunt and hold monthly or bimonthly roundups of gang members with outstanding warrants and bring them in for questioning.
“We’re really interested in dismantling these criminal enterprises,” Elfo said. “It’s a three-pronged attack: intelligence gathering, long-term investigations and street enforcements. So far it’s been pretty successful. It sends a message that if you are a gang member in Whatcom County, you won’t be ignored and that we’re looking for you,” Elfo said.
They’ve also made sure an officer is assigned to the prosecutor’s office to ensure that the prosecutor has everything they need before trial to build the best case possible and that witnesses, often the lynch pin for trials, are not intimidated by gang members in the process. “A lot of times the prosecutor has to plead or drop the case because the witnesses don’t show up. Our officer makes sure they are taken care of and there isn’t any intimidation before the trial. Because of that, we’re able to get more convictions,” Elfo said.
They are also able to work with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle to procure stiffer penalties thanks to the now established partnerships with federal agencies. “We can put habitual offenders away for longer,” Elfo said.
Though he has seen progress since they’ve implemented the task force, Elfo isn’t ready to declare victory yet. “Seven percent of the people we put away are responsible for the 80 to 90 percent of the crime we see,” he said. “We’re just whittling away at them.”