Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is on neighborhoods. This article was originally published March 13, 2012.
Southeast Seattle is under siege, this time not just from gangs, public housing developers, and social-service agencies. It’s experiencing a much more welcome invasion: police and politicians scrambling to respond to the latest eruptions of violent crime there.
The cops and politicos are joining (and joining is the key word here) Southeast residents who’ve long felt neglected by City Hall and police HQ. Even as the previous mayoral administration smugly trumpeted declining citywide crime rates, they complained, crime still climbed in their neighborhoods.
Today's officials and Rainier Valley residents gathered for two banner events last week, which highlighted how far they’ve come in mending past divisions and working together, and how big a challenge they face in restoring a sense of safety to streets that have lately been bloodied.
The first wake-up call came in November, when Danny Vega, a hairdresser and iconic neighborhood figure, was attacked and beaten unconscious near the busy junction of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Othello Street by a team of young thugs. They took his jacket, keys, and cellphone. He revived, stumbled home, but soon afterward fell into a coma and died. This was just the worst in a rash of autumn and wintertime robberies around light rail stations and bus stops in the valley. Typically one spotter would ride transit, watching for passengers sporting laptops, cellphones, and other valuables. He would follow the intended victim off the train or bus, and be followed in turn by up to four accomplices.
Sometimes they’d knock the victim down, sometimes brandish a gun or knife, sometimes just grab and dash. At least ten robberies occurred on the light rail trains themselves, according to the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, which both advises and critiques the Police Department’s South Precinct and helps it get the word out. One gang took to car-jacking, mobbing cars at the fork of Othello and Myrtle Streets — very near the South Precinct station.
The media’s eyes lit up only when Danny Vega died. They opened wide three months later when an alarming fact emerged: Seattle suffered nine homicides in the first eight weeks of 2012 — nearly triple the average rate during 2010 and 2011. Six occurred in Southeast Seattle, three along one short stretch of Rainier Avenue just south of Henderson Street — the heart of Rainier Beach.
Pat Murakami, the crime prevention council’s chair, complains that Mayor Mike McGinn “didn’t assign new officers or even issue a press release” about the violence until someone got killed on his North End home turf, at Woodland Park on Feb. 20. That may be unfair; McGinn went to Rainier Beach to announce the new police deployments, after a particularly lurid incident there the night after the Woodland Park shooting helped concentrate the public’s mind.
George Hendricks Jr., still known by his youthful street name "Peanut" though he was 41 years old, was drinking with his wife at Maya’s Mexican Restaurant, a 33-year-old neighborhood institution a few blocks down Rainier Avenue from Henderson Street. He stepped outside to talk to a fellow called Lucky Dozier. A minute later both fell to the ground, shot. Both died the next day.
At first police cast about, trying to identify the shooter; was it a drive-by? Then a different story emerged. It appeared that Peanut and Lucky had shot each other over some dispute involving the former’s wife; whatever their previous gang ties might have been, this seemed to be something more personal. It was, as Lieutenant John Hayes of the South Precinct says, the kind of impulsive violence you can’t deter with more policing — “the hardest kind for us to prevent, those that are beefin’ on each other. Most of our shootings have been with individuals who knew each other, who just finished talking with each other.” And then, bang. “If people talk to us, tell us, ‘So and so’s beefing with him,’ we can try to intervene, talk to them before.”
Getting more officers on the street only indirectly helps that goal, if those officers can stay on a turf long enough and get out of their cars to develop relationships in the community. But sending in the cavalry can do a lot to deter and catch opportunistic criminals like the transit robbers and burglars. (Burglary is one crime that has risen citywide.)
The “violence prevention emphasis patrols” the mayor announced three weeks ago have already shown some results. Robbers and burglars have been nabbed — one with his swag in the trunk of his car, after a witness provided a particularly good description. So was one suspect who cruised past the viewing of Peanut Hendricks’ body at the South End Mortuary with a gun at the ready. Police Chief John Diaz has reinstated the department’s gang unit, which had been downsized down to nearly nothing.
But at every public venue in Southeast Seattle, the police are at pains to say, “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem. Only the community can solve it” — by overcoming the stigma and fear attached to “snitching,” especially among minority communities, and talking to the cops, by providing the proverbial “eyes on the street,” and, above all, by not tolerating crime, violence, and the conditions that abet them.
The preferred tactic for rallying that community support is a ritual called the neighborhood walkabout: Good people gather and march conspicuously, at night and unarmed, through crime-afflicted areas, “reclaiming” them for the community. As a citizen-generated effort, the walkabout has many antecedents, from Curtis Sliwa’s controversial Guardian Angels in the 1970s and ’80s to the patrols undertaken by Block Watch groups on Mount Baker five years ago. Now, however, it’s the police who are leading them, together with the crime prevention council. Lieutenant Hayes brought the idea back to the South Precinct, where he’d served several earlier rotations, from the East Precinct, where he served his last . Hayes says he got it from the East Precinct Advisory Council, that district’s crime prevention council. Its chair, Stephanie Tschida, says another group, Colman Neighbors, actually initiated the walkabouts.
Walkabouts have blossomed as nowhere else in Southeast Seattle. Hayes, together with Murakami, has led them in at least seven other Southeast neighborhoods. They'll walk Georgetown tonight. Last Monday, March 5, they convened the mother of all walkabouts (billed as a “mega-walk") at ground zero, Rainier and Henderson. When the hour came, some 200 people gathered in the parking lot of the Safeway there. It was a time to see and be seen: the City Council’s Public Safety Committee Chair, Bruce Harrell, was there with his aides, as was City Attorney Pete Holmes and representatives of Mayor McGinn. Deputy Chief Nick Metz headed a large SPD contingent, dispersed among the crowd and guarding its flanks. At least one member in the crowd grumbled about Chief Diaz himself not showing up, but conceded he’s not really a meet-and-greet kind of guy.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!