When gunfire erupted in the Hilltop in 1988, Tacoma was then a city known only for its toxic aroma and an anemic economy. What citizens knew of gang violence came from news clips out of Los Angeles, where gangsters had descended like a plague years before.
Then came the drive-by shooting death of Bernard Houston on a Hilltop corner. His death was a harbinger of bad things to come. It would get worse before it got better.
In the 25 years since, the city’s fortunes have described an arc. First came the rapid descent into a maelstrom of gang violence and bloodshed. After leveling out in the mid-90s, the city began a painstakingly slow climb out of its gang related troubles. The effort ultimately required the cooperation of everyone – community members, business leaders, politicians and the police department – working together to reclaim their neighborhoods from street thugs.
Through it all, Detective John Ringer never forgot the murder that precipitated more than a decade of gang violence. His singular focus on criminal street gangs like the Hilltop Crips has made him a local legend. His unerring knack for locating witnesses and procuring testimony has, once again, led to an arrest for a crime that occurred before most current gang members were born.
Like a patient crafstman, Ringer kept chipping away at the murder investigation, a case all but forgotten except for the victim’s family. Finally, Ringer’s patience and dedication paid off this past week when five suspects were arrested for their part in the gangland execution of Bernard Houston. Three were living in various parts of the Northwest; two were already incarcerated for other crimes.
Forget CSI or Miami Vice – Detective Ringer’s efforts would be better suited to an episode of Barney Miller. Exhaustive interviews and networking may not be as sexy as high speed chases, but it is often the type of investigative work required to bring dangerous criminals to justice.
The story (TNT 4/25) behind the arrests holds several lessons, not least of which is that agencies need to constantly stay abreast of the gang activity in their jurisdictions. The reward can be an arrest in an important case which, like Houston’s killing, has lain dormant for far too many years.
On the flipside, the penalty for taking one’s eye off the ball is invariably the rapid resurgence of gangs. That is a prospect which does not bear repetition. As Tacoma has learned in the last 25 years, rooting gangs out of a neighborhood happens block by block and street by street, day by day and year by year.
Fortunately, with cops like Detective John Ringer on the job gang members already know that the passage of time is no guarantee that they will escape justice for their crimes.