Monroe fears gangs are coming
Times Snohomish County bureau
MONROE — Police fear increased graffiti and some recent fights could be the work of "wannabe" gang members.
Though the city has not experienced problems with gang crime or activity, Police Chief Tim Quenzer is asking residents to report any activity that could be gang-related, including graffiti. One police officer who investigates activity suspected of being related to gangs said he believes some Hispanic gang members may be trying to recruit from the city's growing Latino population.
"We know there are known gang members living in Monroe, and we know they're making contacts with local Hispanics," said Sgt. Carlos Martinez. "But there is no established turf here."
A Seattle-based Hispanic-civil-rights organization, however, says police should advance slowly and carefully with gang theories.
Roberto Maestas, founder and executive director of El Centro de la Raza, said the fears of gang activity may be a reflection of the community struggling to deal with an influx of new residents. Hispanic populations are growing faster in suburban areas because of available jobs and lower rents. Many cities, such as Monroe, are ill-equipped to handle the influx, he said.
"So you get communities worried about their changing community," Maestas said.
Police say they don't believe any crime in Monroe is gang- related, but it could be only a matter of time.
Business owners concerned
Crime, including burglary and larceny, is down in Monroe, according to 2001 statistics collected by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Still, downtown business owners say they're slightly concerned, said Glenda Terry, executive director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is working with police to allay business owners' fears.
"I think (the police) are taking a proactive approach before anything gets out of control," Terry said.
The chamber invited Quenzer to speak during a recent luncheon about gang awareness. The chamber also printed a flier on gang symbols and signs to distribute to the Monroe community.
The largest problem has been graffiti on businesses' walls, street signs, electrical boxes and trash bins, said Martinez, a 14-year member of the police force.
Martinez, who is Hispanic, said concerns of gang recruitment are based on conversations with Hispanics living in Monroe.
Monroe's Hispanic population increased 50 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to census figures. Though many of the Hispanics in the area were originally from southern Mexico and parts of Central America, more northern Mexicans are settling in the vicinity, Martinez said. There is an ethnic divide along Mexico's geographic districts, he said.
Maestas said he knows of no such Mexican divide.
"There are so few Latinos here that there is a natural affinity toward each other when they get here," Maestas said.
"We've received many calls recently from police departments in suburban areas because they have these gang concerns. I say to them, 'Don't jump to conclusions.' "
Monroe High School Principal Daryl Hart said there were some fights and other problems between whites and Hispanics at the school this year. Some led to suspensions.
"In the beginning of the year, we saw some incidents happen with some sophomore Hispanic boys and Caucasian senior boys," he said. "Since February or March, we've been seeing more Hispanic-with-Hispanic (fights).
"But those incidents have been more confrontational outside of school."
Quenzer said, "By no means is this city under siege by gangs. But wannabes have something to prove, and that can make them even more dangerous."
Police ask public for help
Quenzer said he's asking for the community's support in removing graffiti quickly and reporting any potential gang issues to the department.
Terry said the Police Department's aggressive behavior should be positive for the community.
"Wannabes will be 'gonnabes' if (the police) don't take care of gang activity," she said. "People have a nice quality of life in Monroe because of the proactive approach we take to potential problems."
Maestas said his office is willing to help the police identify Hispanic gangs.
"Police departments are the safekeepers of security," he said. "But I think there is potential for tremendous overreaction."
Christopher Schwarzen: 425-745-7811 or firstname.lastname@example.org