LYNDEN - How do you prevent another gang shooting at the Northwest Washington Fair?
Ban confirmed gang members from attending. That's the tactic organizers are taking as they try to avoid a repeat of the gang violence that marred the final day of last year's fair.
On Monday, Aug. 13, police begin the balancing act of enforcing that policy - carrying out the wishes of fair management without "stepping on anyone's toes," as Lynden Police Deputy Chief John Billester put it.
Let's say, for example, a ticketholder has an elaborate tattoo of a number on his neck, a common mark of a gang member. That's a red flag, but no, it wouldn't be enough to refuse him outright at the gate, Billester said.
Still, security at the fair would keep an eye on him.
"And if we see him flash a gang sign, that's enough," Billester said.
The fair has a bigger security budget - Manager Jim Baron declined to reveal how much bigger - than in the past. That means better lighting, more video camera coverage of the fairgrounds and more officers on duty.
For the first time, Whatcom County Sheriff's deputies have contracted with the fair to bolster on-duty security patrols. Lynden police and private security guards will be there, too, as they have in the past.
"We'll have eyes all over the fair," Billester said.
Deputies and officers are paid for by the fair at an overtime rate; that money doesn't come out of taxpayers' pockets.
The fair is run by a private nonprofit agency, so police can kick out anyone who poses a security threat. Only confirmed gang members will be blocked at the gate.
The sheriff's office has identified more than 400 known gang members - presumably the ones who would be denied entry. Billester said officers would use a compendium of data to determine who is not allowed at the fair.
If gang members see that as a challenge, problems could arise. Stoking the fire, so to speak, is the opposite of what police want.
Last year's violence erupted after rival Hispanic gangs confronted each other several times throughout the final day of the weeklong fair. Four people were wounded during a shooting at 10 p.m., in the final hour. The shooter, 15-year-old Daniel Herrera, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for assault while armed with a deadly weapon. He'll be deported after he serves his sentence.
Asked if he's concerned about racial profiling, Billester calmly responded: "Our intention is to avoid that."
"It's not about race," he said. "It's about whether they're a gang member or not."
Baron echoed that sentiment.
"It crosses racial barriers," he said. "There isn't one race that's more involved in gang activity, as far as I'm aware."
Baron has met with police four times this year to fine-tune the security strategy.
Don't expect to see police waving wands over purses, Billester said. Officers will have metal detectors at the ready, but as much as possible they want to avoid being intrusive, so people can have a good time.
Baron pointed out that the gang issue is only one of many public safety concerns being addressed.
At briefings for vendors, organizers have put as much emphasis on the dangers of swine flu as on the issue of gangs, said Linda Lehman, who was helping to make Moo-wiches for the fair on Thursday. Federal health officials reported this week a five-fold increase in a new strain of swine flu at fairs, where visitors are in close contact with infected pigs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"That's probably more threatening than a gang member, to be honest," Lehman said.
But gangs are a growing problem in Lynden and the rest of Whatcom County. Creighton Smith, a Lynden High School student who will show Belgian draft horses at the fair, said he could name at least a couple gang members he goes to school with.
"You kind of know who those guys are," Smith said. "So you don't hang out with them, because you don't want to end up getting shot."
Leslie St. Lawrence, a teacher's aide at Fisher Elementary School in Lynden, said she's confident police will be stopping the right people from entering the fair. She said when gang graffiti showed up in a bathroom at the school recently, a few suspects were identified through a video posted on YouTube.
"There's enough of them that have done some profiling of themselves," she said.
When asked if banning gang members is enforceable, many who were milling around the fairgrounds last week gave the same reply: Does anybody have a better idea?
"Not everybody agrees with what we're doing," Baron said. "But we have been transparent."
'FAIR GAME' WARRANT SWEEP
A warrant sweep dubbed "Fair Game" by the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office ended with the arrest of several suspected gang members last week.
One confirmed gang member, Jimmy R. Abitia, was booked into jail Thursday, Aug. 9, for failing to appear for second-degree malicious mischief.
According to the sheriff's office, six other people with gang connections also were booked into jail for a variety of charges: Michelle C. Bogart, 42; Angela D. Hoover, 33; David C. Amador, 26; Jacob S. Humphrey, 21; Jonathan M. Rodriguez, 19; and a 14-year-old boy.
A seventh man with suspected gang connections, Nicholas G. Lorden, was booked into jail from court at the conclusion of his robbery trial.
"(A warrant sweep) is something we do on a routine basis," said Sheriff Bill Elfo.
But specific people were targeted in advance of the fair, he added.
For a full list of people arrested in the warrant sweep, and specific charges, see our Dispatcher blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/dispatcher.