In a place better known for hippies than gang bangers, an eye opening picture of a relatively new criminal element is developing.
“It’s a problem, and we need to address it now,” said Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo.
Elfo addressed the Whatcom County Council Tuesday, saying there are now 31 gangs operating in the county, with some 500 members and another 400 “associates.” The gangs range from Latino street gangs to white supremacists.
At times, those two groups have even worked together to traffic meth and heroin.
“That’s terrifying,” said Michelle Bruce, picking up her 8-year-old son Mason from a Bellingham day camp that borders one of the city’s more notorious neighborhoods.
Bruce was born in neighboring Ferndale and moved back to Whatcom County to raise her son after living in New York and Los Angeles.
“I want him to think about 8-year-old thoughts,” she said. “To have the kind of upbringing I had.”
But this place isn't so quiet anymore, with five gang murders in Whatcom County over the past six years. “That isn’t what you expect. You just want to keep your kids safe. That's the whole reason I moved home,” Bruce said, hugging her little boy.
Police say most concerning to them is that there are gang members recently released from California prisons now working the neighborhoods of Whatcom County, recruiting kids into the thug life. After four gang related armed robberies in July alone, Sheriff Elfo asked the county council for more money to fill three frozen positions to help fight the gangs.
A decision will come later this fall. Elfo points to a growing urgency for funding, including an incident two summers ago at the Northwest Washington Fair in sleepy Lynden. Three people were shot, another stabbed in gang related violence.
“People think it’s just gang members shooting at gang members, but sooner or later you’re going to get innocent people caught in the crossfire,” said Elfo. “We had a 16 mile running gun battle between two rival gangs up I-5 a couple years ago. We're very lucky innocent people weren't injured as a result of that.”
The gang problem was recognized by the county in 2007. Since then the sheriff’s office has partnered with state and federal authorities to start cracking down. Elfo says they’ve arrested 84 gang members in six sweeps over the past 18 months.