Editor's Note: This is the first article in a two-part series.
Seattle Police officer David Ellithorpe was talking with an officer on K-9 duty in the parking lot of the Van Asselt Community Center. It was about an hour after sunset on a Monday in May. Both officers were on an overnight patrol shift. Ellithorpe was trying to remember the name of the young guy who owned the purple Crown Victoria, the one with the oversized chrome wheels that idled over his shoulder on South Frontenac Street. Some kids hung around the cars that were parked on the opposite side of the lot, while others played basketball on an adjacent blacktop court.
At 9:37 p.m, a call came through on the patrol car radio: Possible shots fired. In seconds, Ellithorpe and the K-9 officer were each behind the wheel of their vehicles. They sped out of the parking lot, lights flashing.
As Ellithorpe raced north in his patrol car, up Beacon Avenue South, the police dispatcher continued to relay information. There were reports that a gray Nissan was involved, that there was yelling along the lines of, "They're coming back." Less than two minutes later, Ellithorpe and at least three other officers had arrived at Beacon and South Graham Street.
It did not look like a crime scene, just an intersection. A woman was walking her dog. Cars waited for the stoplight to change. The officers walked along the curbs and sidewalks, looking for expended shells or any other evidence of gunfire. They found nothing.
More information continued to filter in over the patrol car radio as Ellithorpe drove back south on Beacon Avenue. At least three callers had reported four or five shots fired.
"It might be someone driving around shooting," Ellithorpe said. "It's not that out of the ordinary."
Ellithorpe works in the south precinct. When compared to the four other precincts in the city, the south precinct has not had the highest monthly crime rates during the last two years. During that time, overall monthly crime rates there have trailed far behind the west precinct, which encompasses neighborhoods including downtown and Pioneer Square. And the rates in the east precinct, which contains Capitol Hill and the Central District, typically edged out those in the south precinct in most months.
What the south precinct does have though, is more than its fair share of gun-related crime.
During the 24-month period beginning in January 2012, the average monthly rate of assaults and robberies involving guns, per 1,000 residents, in the precinct was about 1.6 times greater than the next closest rate, in the east precinct, and more than five times greater than the lowest rate, which was in the north precinct. During 18 of those 24 months, the south precinct had the highest rate of gun-related assaults and robberies.
During 18 months in 2012 and 2013, the rate of assaults and robberies involving guns was highest in the south precinct. The population figures used to calculate the rates come from SPD and are based on 2010 Census block estimates. Assault and robbery figures are from SPD's monthly crime data.
Seattle Police Department incident report records also show that at least 25 drive-by shootings — which do not necessarily involve injuries — have occurred in the city since Jan. 1, 2013. Of these, 19 took place in the south precinct.
The number of homicides in the precinct was comparatively high as well during 2012 and 2013. It's not immediately clear from published crime statistics and police reports how many of the killings involved guns. Of the 49 homicides recorded by the department in 2012 and 2013, the south precinct had the largest share, with 17. In other words, about 35 percent of the killings took place in the south precinct. The north precinct had the next highest number, with 13, but also has nearly three times as many residents than the south precinct.
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