Life and violence in the Rainier Valley: 'My home is right here on Rainier Ave.'

Neighborhoods in southeast Seattle can be tough. But people are looking at ways to make things better for themselves and those around them.
Neighborhoods in southeast Seattle can be tough. But people are looking at ways to make things better for themselves and those around them.

Second of two stories

Seattle police detective Denise "Cookie" Bouldin knows what it is like to be young and living in a rough area.

"Seattle is nothing compared to the Chicago projects," she said during a recent interview, referring to the place where she grew up. Gangs, drugs and prostitution were all around her then. "I hated the police because my community and the people around me hated the police,” she said. But after talking to an officer at her high school, she began to realize that she wanted to be a cop.

Detective Cookie, as she is called almost universally by people who know her in the Rainier Valley, is a 33-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department. She has worked in the south precinct for about 25 years and also lives in the area. Her nickname is the result of her childhood love for cookies. In 2006 she started a chess club in Rainier Beach, even though she did not know how to play the game. Chess enables her to have conversations with kids in the Rainier Valley, much like the one she had with the police officer in her high school when she was growing up. 

“I use the chess board to teach anti-violence,” she said. “Most of the kids who participate in my chess club have seen violence, have seen death."

The year before she started the club, she had organized a basketball tournament in the neighborhood. After the tournament, some kids she spoke with said they had interests besides basketball, and that they wanted to play chess. 

"I’m thinking: I hate chess,” Bouldin said. But she agreed to organize an event anyway.

About 20 kids showed up to that first chess event, and only three knew how to play the game. "I saw something wrong with the picture," she said. "Here we had kids that wanted to do something out of the norm, and there’s no avenue for them."

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Detective Denise "Cookie" Bouldin and students from Van Asselt and South Shore schools at her annual Urban Youth School Chess Tournament. Photo: SPD

The club currently meets on Tuesdays at the Rainier Beach Library and on Saturdays at the Rainier Beach Community Center. Six kids and young adults turned out for a chess club session at the community center on a recent Saturday afternoon. The room was generally quiet, except for when Detective Cookie, or a chess instructor who works with the club, chimed in to comment on the wisdom of particular moves. There were also a few friendly barbs exchanged between a couple of the players. The overhead fluorescent lights were off and bright sunlight glowed outside the windows, some of which looked out onto Rainier Avenue South, near South Henderson Street. The space resembled a high school classroom. The chessboards were laid out on folding tables with blue plastic tops.

Nile Hunter, a sixth grader, was wearing a basketball jersey with a Batman logo on it. Hunter learned to play chess at the club. He plays piano as well. "It helps me learn and sometimes just release stress from other things I do," he said, referring to chess. Making moves where he can take other people's pieces is his favorite part of the game. "It's fun to play," he said

Evelyn Gresham arrived as the two-hour chess session neared its end. She was there to pick up her daughter, Angel. A lifelong resident of the Rainier Valley, Gresham said that she sees chess as a self-esteem booster for her daughter. "It's a good, healthy challenge."

Angel is 10 years old now and began learning to play chess at the club when she was 5. She was looking forward to a tournament that was coming up on June 10 at the Van Asselt Community Center. "It was a quiet place," Angel said when asked what she likes about participating in the club. Bouldin says that Angel shows quite a bit of promise as a chess player. As the detective plays against her, and as she watches Angel play against other opponents, she encourages her to stop and think before making moves and to look beyond the easiest play.

"Sometimes people are going to want to give you things so they can take advantage," she said. "They're setting you up."

Angel's mom worries about crime, especially now that her daughter is getting older. "She's with me 24/7," Gresham said. They like going to Maya's, a Mexican restaurant, which is a couple doors down from Tino's Pizza and other businesses that were recently hit with gunfire during an apparent drive-by shooting where about 50 shots were fired. But at the moment she was more reluctant to stop by the restaurant. "I'm afraid," she said. "It's too close for comfort for me." Despite the uneasiness the crime causes for her, Gresham, speaking about her neighborhood in the southern Rainier Valley, said: "This is still home."

In Detective Cookie's view, the trouble in the area often obscures the good. "There are a lot of kids that are really doing the right things," she said. “It seems like the whole community is getting blamed for a handful of people who are making bad choices."

Crime in the Rainier Valley is also centered around a handful of places. During the past six months, the Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth initiative has held a series of workshops to determine how the environment in some of these places could be changed to ward off criminal activity. Rainier Beach is an area that is made up of a group of neighborhoods located in the southeastern corner of Seattle.

"Even in an area that you might think is a safe neighborhood there are still going to be hotspots of crime," said Charlotte Gill, deputy director at George Mason University's Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, which has provided the initiative with research assistance and data.

The initiative is targeting five hotspots in Rainier Beach: Rainier Avenue South between South Rose Street and South Kenyon Street; the area around the Lake Washington Apartments, Rainier Beach High School and Beer Sheva Park; the intersection of Rainier Avenue South and South Henderson Street; the block where the Rainier Beach Safeway is located on Rainier Avenue, just south of Henderson; and the Rainier Beach Sound Transit Light Rail Station on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

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The area around Sound Transit's Rainier Beach Link light rail station is one of the hotspots where the Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth initiative is focusing its crime prevention efforts. Photo: Bill Lucia

A volunteer community task force met for five workshops between last December and this May to discuss ways to address crime at the hotspots. The task force was broken into teams of businesses owners, employees, students, commuters and residents who were familiar with each of the locations. About 90 volunteers participated over the course of the process. The George Mason researchers provided the group with data and there was also a panel discussion with Seattle police officers. The goal was to come up with "non-arrest" strategies for reducing crime at each of the locations.

Robberies, thefts and simple assaults are the three most common types of crime at the intersection of Rainier and Henderson, according to the data the group used during the workshops. There were 28 robberies, 27 thefts and 18 simple assaults during 2013. The data showed that the number of simple assaults in the area had doubled since 2012, while the number of robberies had quadrupled.

Directly east of the intersection, on Henderson, is Rainier Beach High School. On the block to the west is South Shore K-8 School and less than a quarter mile to the north is South Lake High School. Several elementary schools are also located nearby. When the schools let out in the afternoon, the area around Henderson and Rainier sees a large influx of kids passing through, which can create situations conducive to mischief and crime.

One of the suggestions that the Rainier and Henderson team included in a recent draft list of non-arrest "interventions" for Rainier and Henderson was staggering school release times, so that all of the schools do not let out at the same time. South Shore already has a plan to change school release times next fall.

Another suggestion involves increasing "guardianship." Guardianship can take on a variety of forms including police patrols, installing surveillance cameras at businesses, or creating new structured activities for young people — an example of this would be Detective Cookie's chess club. George Mason's Gill notes that just having businesses, with people looking out of the windows, can help improve guardianship in an area. "They're providing a set of eyes on the street that can support that crime prevention," she said.

A guardianship intervention that the Rainier and Henderson team suggested involves "Safe Passage" partnerships. This could involve adults with youth engagement training and familiarity with support services spending time near the intersection around the time the schools let out, according to Barb Biondo, senior projects coordinator for Seattle Neighborhood Group, an organization involved in the initiative.

Improving communication between Seattle Parks and Recreation, schools and the police department, and finding new ways to use public spaces, like South Shore's plaza on the corner of Rainier and Henderson, are among the initiative's other goals.

Biondo is optimistic about the direction the project and the Rainier Valley are headed. "I definitely think a corner is being turned, especially because of community involvement," she said recently.

That level of involvement is a valuable asset, according to Gill. "One of the things that's great about Rainier Beach," she said, "is you have a really strong desire from the community themselves and the organizations working in the community to improve."

Salah Hussein was one of the volunteers involved in the Safe Place for Youth workshops. He owns Top Star Software and Hardware, located on Rainier Avenue South about a quarter mile north of Rose Street — one of the five hotspots. The shop is situated in the back corner of a small parking lot. On a recent afternoon, the front door was open and two older men sat on a pair of couches talking in Somali as Hussein and a clerk stood at the counter, helping a couple of customers with computer and cellphone repairs and upgrades. 

Hussein first arrived in the United States from Somalia in 1996. He left his village when he was 7 years old and recounts a journey to Mombasa, Kenya that involved a boat and 18 days of walking. 

"When I came here," he said, "I didn't even know how to say 'hi.' " Since 1998, he has lived between Rainier Avenue South and Martin Luther King Way South. In addition to participating in the Safe Place for Youth workshops, Hussein has mounted his own individual effort to help young men he sees hanging around near Rose Street, who he thinks might be headed toward trouble. Through connections he has at hotels and laundry services, Hussein has helped some of these young men find jobs.

"Look, they don't have their country, they've been told they're criminal when they're not," Hussein said. "I took almost like 18 to 20 guys off that street."

Most of them, he said, are just looking for work and a "place to belong." Toward the end of his conversation with a reporter, Hussein proudly pulls out a cell phone picture of his own 11-year-old son playing violin at a recent school concert.

"I came here, and I feel like I belong, I'm ready to defend this place," he said. "My home is right here on Rainier Ave."

Getting officers out of their cars and walking the streets and stepping up bicycle patrols are two law enforcement tactics the south precinct is using to deter violence in crime-prone areas, according to acting precinct Capt. Steve Strand. "We're trying to be visible: putting people where violence has happened, where we think it's going to happen," he said.

The precinct is taking other steps to fight crime as well, such as partnering with Sound Transit to prevent strong-arm robberies on the Link Light Rail and coordinating with the department's City Attorney liaison to work with local property owners to encourage the eviction of problem businesses.

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A Seattle Police Department mobile command vehicle parked along Rainier Avenue South, near the place where an apparent drive-by shooting took place in mid-May. Photo: Bill Lucia 

But at last week's South Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting, multiple attendees argued that there should be more cops in the south precinct and particularly the Rainier Valley. Pressed on the issue at the meeting, Strand said that staffing decisions were up to interim Police Chief Harry C. Bailey. "I tell Chief Bailey very frankly and he knows," Strand said, responding to one resident at the meeting who asked him to forward the community's concerns about staffing levels to the chief.

City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology committee, has said that south precinct should have more police officers. "Recent levels of crime in the last 2 months requires a re-examination of police deployment resources in the central and south area," he said in an email this week to Crosscut. 

Seattle allocates cops based on criteria outlined in the city's neighborhood policing plan, which was written in 2007. Two of the main goals the plan outlines are: That officers respond to the most life-threatening 911 calls — known as "priority one" calls — in seven minutes or less and that they have at least 30 percent of their on-duty time to devote to pro-active policing, focused more on the root causes of crime rather than incident response. 

The south precinct is currently performing well based on these goals. Average priority one response times in the precinct have hovered around seven minutes since June 2011 and officers have their 30 percent of proactive policing time, according to figures Harrell presented at a recent public safety meeting held in south Seattle. But Harrell also noted that 911 calls could potentially be a misleading metric for determining how much crime is happening in a place.

"We know that many communities are not making them, and the crimes are occurring," he said at the meeting, adding that the south precinct is working with the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs to increase awareness about the importance of dialing 911 to report incidents.

There are other ways to look at how police officers are allocated and how staffing matches up against the amount of crime occurring in each of the city's precincts. For instance, when looking only at officers assigned to 911 call response, there were approximately 67 crimes per officer in the south precinct during 2013 — that's the second lowest number of crimes per officer among the five precincts. By comparison, the west precinct, which includes Pioneer Square, had the highest ratio of crimes per officer last year. There were roughly 105 for each cop. 

The ratios are approximate because the number of officers in service fluctuates throughout the year. Crosscut's estimates are based on the number of officers assigned to 911 incident response in September 2013. According to a department staffing report, there were 89 of these officers in the south precinct at that time and 106 in the west precinct.

When looking at only violent crimes, the ratios change. The south precinct has the second highest ratio of violent crimes per officer. These offenses include homicides, rapes, assaults and robberies. There were about 18 violent crimes per officer in the south precinct in 2013. The east precinct trailed the south slightly with approximately 17.9. The west precinct checked in with the most violent crimes per officer during the same time period with a ratio of about 25-to-1.

Looking at these numbers, it is difficult to find evidence that the south precinct is grossly understaffed compared to other precincts in the department. Whether there is a patrol officer staffing shortage department-wide is another question.

During the recession, officer staffing levels at the department remained more or less frozen. The number of officers in service on the force in the first quarter of 2007 was 1,210, according to information the department shared with the Mayor's Office earlier this year. A 2014 staffing estimate in Harrell's presentation at the recent public safety meeting pegged the average monthly number of officers on the force at 1,255.

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These figures are based on the number of officers assigned to 911 call response in each of Seattle's five police precincts during September 2013. Officer numbers are from a police department staffing report sent to the Mayor's Office in January. Crime data are from SPD's monthly precinct-level statistics. Source: SPD; Calculations and Chart: Bill Lucia, Crosscut

"My concern here is not additional funding resources alone, but poor allocation of resources and lack of effective management," Harrell said in his email to Crosscut. "SPD has an annual budget of approximately $290 million and under 2000 [full time employees]."

Only 568 of those employees were officers and sergeants assigned to 911 response duties, as of September last year, according to the staffing report. The department has hired 71 recruits for 2014, according to Harrell.

The city, Harrell said, has budgeted nearly $500,000 for the next police chief to use on re-evaluating the way the department's resources are deployed. Mayor Ed Murray's nominee for that position is Kathleen O'Toole. A former Boston Police Commissioner, O'Toole has said that she would make developing a new neighborhood policing plan one of her top priorities.

Crime in the south precinct used to be worse, according to Randy Huserik, an officer who has worked patrol shifts there for about 12 years.

"When I came here it was wilder and crazier," he said, as he drove in his patrol car on an afternoon in May. "On a warm, sunny Saturday we'd turn our radios down and just listen for gunfire."

That was back in the mid-1990s. There were also different hotspots back then, such as the Hook, Line and Sinker restaurant, "The Hook," as it was known for short. "That was a violent night club," said David Ellithorpe, an officer who was on an overnight patrol shift later that day.

The Hook was located on Rainier Avenue South. King Donuts, which also serves teriyaki and has laundromat facilities, moved into the location back in 2001. King Donuts is adjacent to the Safeway that the Safe Place For Youth Initiative identified as a hotspot. About a quarter-mile east on Rainier Avenue South is Tino's Pizza, the storefront shot up in an apparent drive-by shooting on May 15.

Riding near the southern city limits around dusk, Ellithorpe rolls down suburban-looking side streets, occasionally pointing to individual residences: "This is a gangster house... This is a gangster house." A 19-year veteran of the south precinct, he said: "I wouldn't know how to act in any other part of the city."

Driving past a Crown Victoria parked on one of the side streets, he slows down and says the windows were shot out three weeks prior, and points to a bullet hole by the rear license plate. The owner of the car, he said, is involved in crime. "I've known him since he was a little knocker," Ellithorpe said, adding that he has come to know a lot of the kids who are mixed up in trouble. "They'll say, 'What are you still doing out here?' I'll say I got to pay the rent."

Ellithorpe notes a spot on South 116th Place and 72nd Avenue South in Skyway where someone opened fire on a vehicle on May 6, which a King County Sheriff's deputy had pulled over for a traffic stop. "Someone shot at them from the bushes," he said.

He points out another house: "The young man who used to live there is in Walla Walla for shooting a guy." And he also notes the Zest Fast Food on Rainier Avenue. "Believe it or not," Ellithorpe said, "this place makes a doggone good burger."

There's a radio call that someone is tagging a building with graffiti and that a purple car was spotted at the scene. "I bet they're tagging the hookah bar," Ellithorpe said.

Turning on the patrol car's spotlight, he drives through a parking lot, which he said is a known spot for prostitution. It sits next to a church. There is no sign of anybody in the lot. "This corner here used to be gangsterville," he said, pulling out of the parking lot on the opposite side.

"It's like anything," Huserik, the other officer said earlier in the day. "Crime is cyclical."

It's also generational. Huserik said that he has arrested the children of people who he arrested when he started out on the police force.

"Things have kind of changed in The Valley," Ellithorpe said. "It's not what it was five years ago. A lot of the violent crimes right now are being committed by guys who are 15 to 19 years old."

Some of the kids are even younger. "What you hear about on the news, mostly who's doing it is little kids trying to prove themselves. Like me, back in the day," said an 18-year-old South Seattle gang member who spoke with Crosscut on the condition of anonymity. Eight-year-olds are sometimes carrying small pistols, he said. Asked by a reporter where the guns are coming from he said: "They're everywhere."

"I mean, man, somebody like you could be selling a gun," he adds. Asked what the most sought after firearm is, he says 9mm handguns. He said he has seen people he knows and cares about get killed. "When you see your brother get zipped up in a body bag and taken off," he said, "it makes you go crazy a little bit. It makes you want to go do what just happened to him."

"A lot of people when they see their friend get shot, they go get a gun."

Structured activities, like sports, were not enough to keep the young man from being drawn toward a gang. Until he was 12 years old, he said, he played football and basketball and was known for scoring. He describes practicing, trying to get better than the next person.

Things changed.

"When you've never had nothing over $100 in your pocket, and done hit a lick," he said, referring to committing a burglary or a robbery, "and you come up and you got like $1,000 in your pocket ... you're like 'I feel rich.' "

But he acknowledges that he does not want to continue committing crime and that eventually he will get caught. In addition to finishing up high school, he has been doing construction work and hopes to make a career in the trades.

"I'm trying to get a good job and get out of here," he said. "There's really violence everywhere, I don't want to raise my kids out here. I'd even go to North Seattle."

Getting out is not easy though, he said; leaving a gang is like betraying your family. "It's a big game, it's like a real big game, a dangerous game, though."

Originally from Kenya, Abdikadir Elmi has been involved in Detective Cookie's chess club for about two years. He is about the same age as the young man who is involved in the gang. Recently, Elmi began studying to take the Seattle police exam. And through a youth program run by the Seattle Police Department, he has attended summer camps for youths interested in law enforcement and gone on ride-alongs with officers.

Playing chess, he said, has helped him with math and when planning ahead for college and his career. Much like the young man involved in the gang, he likens his life to a game, but a more hopeful one. "I'm thinking of myself as a pawn, becoming a king, becoming a leader," he said.

Asked about the neighborhood as he walked in front of the Rainier Beach Community Center, near Henderson Street, he said: "Some people say it's bad, but it's not that bad once you get to know it."

The first part of this two-part series is here.


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