Gang Unit: "Focus on car thefts and end up arresting violent criminals"

BENTON COUNTY, Wash. -- In the past year, Benton County has locked up dozens of gang members by simply focusing on stolen cars.

It's proof that when one bad apple falls, more will follow.

For Scott Smith, each case of gang graffiti underscored the same, old worry: acts of vandalism would eventually become acts of violence.

"I can't imagine the mindset. (Gang members) are people who just want to tear things down," Smith tells KEPR.

But thanks to scenes like this, Smith's worst fears are have not happened. For more than a year now, the Benton County Gang Unit has focused its attention on known car thieves in the Tri-Cities. Deputies will tell you gang activity often starts with stolen cars, and ends with something far worse.

Think of it this way: Many of the people who would steal a car are probably gang members who want to sell drugs. By putting them behind bars, it's the best ripple effect possible. Not only do you have a gang member and a drug dealer locked up, but also a car thief.

"A lot of them know each other and commit crimes together," says Capt. Chuck Jones.

Since the gang unit started focusing on car thefts, the number of stolen car cases in Benton County has plunged by 43%. At the same time, it's allowed the gang unit to seize $10,000 worth of drug money.

And when it comes to Smith's neighborhood, gang graffiti cases are down 58%.

"It sounds like a great police procedure," he says. "You start to pull on a thread and unravel the whole piece"

Gang unit officials tell us they will continue to track car thefts here in the Tri-Cities.

This year, they're also ramping up support groups for people who want to leave gangs.