Hermiston council debates merit of gang ordinance

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The city of Boardman recently passed an ordinance aimed at giving law enforcement the ability to designate individuals as affiliates of a criminal gang in an attempt to curtail gang activity. Don’t look for the city of Hermiston, however, to adopt a similar ordinance any time soon.

While citing a need to be “tough on crime,” members of the Hermiston City Council expressed doubts about the Boardman ordinance’s effectiveness as well as whether it was even constitutional.

“I have quite a few reservations about this,” said City Councilor Rod Hardin. The Boardman ordinance was on the council’s Jan. 28 agenda at the request of council member John Kirwan, who, when asked by Mayor Dave Drotzmann if he was suggesting Hermiston adopt a similar ordinance, indicated a willingness to pursue a more effective anti-gang ordinance.

“If we’re going to take steps like this,” said Kirwan, “there needs to be teeth involved . . . I think there’s some things we can do to improve the ordinance.”

City Councilor George Anderson said there was a lot of room for improvement, prefacing his remarks by paraphrasing Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” when he said, ‘All that glitters is not gold.’

“First off, I’m as tough on crime as anyone,” said Anderson. “But when you want to be tough on crime, you have to be smart on crime and this Boardman ordinance is not smart.” Anderson said among his many concerns about the ordinance is its vagueness as well as the fact that he believes it would do little to impact criminal activity in Hermiston.

“The criteria for designating a person as a criminal gang affiliate is incredibly broad and probably not constitutional,” he said.

The Boardman ordinance outlines 10 characteristics or behaviors that would identify an individual as a criminal gang affiliate. Among the ways in which the ordinance would define someone as a gang affiliate is if he or she commits a crime connected in some way to a known criminal gang; has a tattoo associated with known gangs; wears clothing or jewelry that “clearly indicates” affiliation with a gang; is seen in a photo with others displaying gang signs or clothing to “exhibit solidarity,” or uses hand signs or language which “clearly indicates” criminal gang affiliation. If at least two of those identifying characteristics apply to an individual, he or she could be designated a criminal gang affiliate. The ordinance outlines the full process for officially designating individuals as gang affiliates.

Councilor Manuel Gutierrez also said he was uncomfortable with the possible repercussions of adopting an ordinance similar to the one Boardman passed.

“It’s too easy to label someone unfairly as a gang member based on clothes they wear,” he said.

With or without an ordinance, Kirwan said the city needs to focus on the issue of crime.

“I think there’s some things we can do to cut down on crime,” said Kirwan.

The council took no action on the issue at the Jan. 28 meeting, but Drotzmann said the subject is one the city will keep its focus on.

“It would be good to have continued conversations,” he said.