Life and violence in the Rainier Valley: 'It's complicated out here'

In Seattle's South Precinct, gang violence and drive-by shootings live cheek-to-cheek with grit, fierce community and a sense of hope.
In Seattle's South Precinct, gang violence and drive-by shootings live cheek-to-cheek with grit, fierce community and a sense of hope.

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.

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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. 

The south precinct is bounded by the Duwamish Waterway to the west and Lake Washington to the east. The northern boundary runs roughly parallel to Interstate 90 and the southern border follows the city limits. It occupies about 12 square miles and is transected by a series of busy north-south city thoroughfares, including Rainier Avenue South, Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and Beacon Avenue. The Sound Transit light rail line also passes through.

Affluent sections of the Mount Baker neighborhood, which overlook Lake Washington, harder-edged portions of Rainier View, a neighborhood on the southern fringe of the city, which melds into nearby Bryn Mawr-Skyway, and industrial stretches of First Avenue South, which skirt the Port of Seattle all fall within the south precinct's perimeter.

The southern end of the Rainier Valley comprises most of a section of the precinct known as "S Sector" or "Sam Sector." Many of the precinct's gun-related incidents have taken place here in recent years. During the two-year period that includes 2012 and 2013, 44 percent of the gun-related robberies and assaults that occurred in the entire precinct were reported in Sam Sector. So were 13 of the precinct’s drive-by shootings and 10 of its homicides.

The Rainier Valley, however, is hardly represented by crime statistics alone. The corridor is known for containing some of the city's more ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods and zip codes. For residents, business owners, cops and even criminals, ties to the area run deep. And while high-profile incidents involving gunfire have drawn attention to the Rainier Valley in recent weeks, what has gone less noticed is the hard push by people who care about the area to ensure that it stays safe.

These efforts unfold in a variety of ways: a police officer who teaches kids chess; a college student who returns to the area in the summer to tutor students at her former high school; a computer-shop owner from Somalia who has helped young men flirting with crime find jobs instead.

Larger-scale crime prevention initiatives are also taking place. "Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth," is a federal grant-funded collaboration between community members, criminologists, the city and nonprofits to determine evidence-based solutions, other than arrests, to improve public safety at what have been identified as crime hotspots in the south end of the Rainier Valley.

Crime and policing in the area is popping up on elected officials' radar as well.

"The south precinct should have more resources in terms of budget dollars and officers," City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the committee that oversees public safety, said in an email on Monday. Harrell also lives in south Seattle. Next year, the city will change over to a partly district-based City Council election system. The borders of the district that Harrell would represent track closely with those of the south precinct, and public safety will likely be a closely watched issue among the district's voters.

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Many gun-related crimes in Seattle's south precinct in recent years have occurred within the "S sector" (bottom right). Source: SPD 

Whether individual, organizational or city-backed, efforts to combat crime and violence in south Seattle inevitably bump up against the realities of multi-generational economic hardship, and the quick camaraderie and cash that attracts youths to gangs and other criminal activity.

The percentage of families with incomes below the poverty level was 13.5 percent and 19.3 percent in two of the census tracts where the Safe Place for Youth initiative is concentrating its efforts, according to estimates from the Census Bureau's 2008-2012 American Community Survey. The citywide poverty rate for families in Seattle during the same survey period was 6.5 percent. 

Gun violence was pushed into the spotlight in Seattle last week. Following a shooting at Seattle Pacific University on Thursday that left one student dead and another seriously injured and a double homicide the weekend before in Leschi, Mayor Ed Murray said he would call a special meeting of the Seattle City Council that would focus on the issue.

"Problems, be they on a school campus or in a home, or on a nearby street corner, are too often solved with guns," the mayor said at a press conference last Friday. "This city and this nation must address this senseless violence."

The day after Murray made his remarks, a man was gunned down around 3 a.m. on 12th Avenue South in the International District. That killing, along with the Leschi double murder and three other city homicides that took place in late-April, all happened in the east precinct.

Although bullets have not claimed any lives in the Rainier Valley in recent weeks, the area has experienced gunfire.

At least three drive-by shootings were reported in May. A man with a bullet wound to his leg turned up in the hospital on the afternoon of April 29, shortly after witnesses saw a gunman standing outside a gas station on Rainier Avenue open fire at a passing car. And on May 14, a 34-year-old woman, carrying her infant child in Othello Playground around 7:30 p.m. sustained a shrapnel injury. The woman was apparently caught in crossfire. Two men nearby in the park were seen shooting at one another. Neighborhood residents at a community safety meeting held last week complained of commonly hearing gunshots at night.

Rainier Valley residents, and even some police, note that the people committing these crimes represent only a sliver of the population and that many of them come from outside the community.

"You end up with people who don't live here, or work here, they're not from the neighborhood," said Randy Huserik, a patrol officer who said he has worked "down in the Valley" for about 12 years. "That's where a lot of the problems arise."

Regardless of where the problems originate, some believe the local criminal activity unfairly overshadows the area's vibrancy and cultural diversity.

"I really want to move back here and make this my home," Halimo Maie, the college student who tutors during the summers, said at a community event that the Safe Place for Youth initiative helped organize in late May at South Shore K-8 School.

A graduate of Rainier Beach High School, Maie now studies human development at Washington State University in Pullman. The first person in her family to attend college, she completed her junior year at WSU in May. While she talks excitedly about her studies, she also says that the area around Rainier Beach is the only place where she feels like she can "breathe."

Maie arrived there after first moving with her family from Kenya to Minnesota. Around Rainier Beach, she said, things like clothing and skin color just do not matter as much as they do other places. Eventually Maie would like to find work there, helping young people avoid jail and stay on track to four-year colleges.

Asked about crime in the neighborhood, she defends its reputation. "You're not going to tell me there's no shooting on the north side," she said. "I think it's a peaceful place."

Not everyone feels that way. Sorin Ragsdale has owned Tino's Pizza on Rainier Avenue South near Seward Park Avenue South for nine years. Not far from where Ragsdale was sitting at a table inside the pizzeria on a recent afternoon, there's a brown ornamental wooden fork the size of a camp shovel. A bullet busted off one of the prongs about two weeks before. There were two, approximately 1-inch bullet holes in the plate glass window in his shopfront, with cracks spidering outwards. A bullet also grazed the wall directly above the table where he was sitting. 

The shots struck the pizzeria shortly after 11 p.m. on the night of May 15. The shop was closed at the time and Ragsdale was gone for the day. According to the police department, unidentified suspects fired about 50 rounds during an apparent drive-by shooting, which also hit five vehicles and four other businesses, including a barbershop and a marijuana dispensary located on either side of Tino's. Officers recovered 39 rifle shell casings and 14 handgun casings.

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Bullets struck Tino's Pizza on Rainier Avenue South during an apparent drive by shooting in mid-May. A nearby barbershop and marijuana dispensary were also hit. Photo: Bill Lucia

"I don't think it's safe," said Ragsdale, who is originally from Romania. He can recount other times shots were fired on and around the block, but nothing on the scale of the fusillade in mid-May. Ragsdale and his wife have been looking to sell the shop since last summer, when they began to notice an uptick in gunfire. One night Ragsdale found nine or 10 bullet shells next to his parked car. Another time his wife saw shots fired from a passing vehicle on Rainier Avenue.

The police department has indicated that there is a strong possibility that the Tree House Collective medical marijuana dispensary, which is next door to Tino's, was the target of the drive-by shooting. "It's a magnet of activity," said acting south precinct Capt. Steve Strand.

There was always some suspicious activity on the block, according to Ragsdale. People drinking in public, others walking into his shop trying to sell him stolen shoes, cosmetics and meat. But in his opinion, the gunfire has coincided with the opening of the dispensary. He and his wife cannot find a buyer for the shop, so they are considering selling off the equipment. "Better than getting shot," he said one day in late May. 

The owner of the barbershop a couple doors down from Tino's Pizza declined to be interviewed. But, in the weeks after the shooting, he said business had declined by 60 percent. Customers, he said, were afraid to bring their kids in for a haircut.

Mutugeta Haile, who was working at the Tree House Collective on Tuesday, disputed the idea that the marijuana dispensary was drawing shady activity to the block. "We are a legit business," he said. "We have a license, we do our taxes." Haile said the problems are part of bigger trends: too many guns, neighborhood crime and a lack of adequate police services. "The police are not doing their job," he said.

"We're in America," he said. "Shit happens."

This map shows the locations of 24 drive-by shootings in Seattle, which have occurred since Jan. 1, 2012 and were documented in police department incident reports. There was a total of 25 shootings documented in the reports. There 22 locations on the map because two locations each had two shootings, and because there was no geographic coordinate data available for one of the incidents. You can zoom in or out. Click on incidents to see details. Source: Seattle Police Department

Last Wednesday night at a meeting of the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council, Strand, the acting South Precinct captain, said the precinct's officers had confiscated eight guns during the prior week. "I'm telling everyone we're going to have a contest to see who can get the most guns off the street," Strand told a Crosscut reporter at the community event held at South Shore school the week before. After officers stopped a group of five teenagers on May 22, one of the teens, a 14-year-old, dropped a stolen handgun loaded with hollow point bullets and took off running. The officers caught and booked the kid.

"Sometimes [officers] are meeting the community and being social," Strand said, "and someone throws a gun in the bushes."

An 18-year-old high school student, who is a member of a south Seattle gang, spoke with Crosscut in May on the condition of anonymity. The student said he possessed three firearms. He said he saw another man die in the street from a gunshot wound to the head last year, and that he has had a handgun pointed at his own face on the E Line bus.

His father, he said, was in and out of jail over the years, but is currently at home and not working. His mother has a nursing job. He first began to get involved in gang-related activity when he was about 11-years-old. 

"I was living with my mom back then, I started running away," he said. "It really didn't matter to nobody, my dad was booked, my mom was always working, trying to do her thing for the kids."

He hung out on South Henderson Street "day and night," trying to impress older kids and young men already involved in the gang he now belongs to. "We'd go on knockout missions," he said. "Go rob somebody."

Asked what drew him toward the gang, he initially mentions his dad, whom he refered to as a one-time "knockout artist."

"At first, you know, I always said I didn't want to be like my dad," he said. "But deep down inside I do, because of the stories, and all the stuff he used to do in the streets, I'd even go and try to remake the stories."

But there were other reasons as well. He comes from a big family and has five older brothers, two older sisters and three younger sisters. He recounted coming home and finding the electricity cut off.

"The lights is off and sometimes there's no food in the refrigerator," he said. "I'm going to get it, however I can I'm gonna go get it. I'm gonna come back with the money to pay the light bill, and I'm going to come back with food. It might not be the best way that I could, I might have to go break the law."

"It's a struggle and nobody wants to see their family struggle," he said.

Other gang members he knows have dealt with even more dire family situations, sometimes involving drugs.

"A lot of people join because they don't have that family at home," he said. "Maybe their parents are doped out, mom's smoking, dad's smoking, maybe your dad is selling to your mom."

"It's complicated out here, and I mean you just want to get away," he adds. "There's nowhere to go but the streets."

Tomorrow: The second part of this story will take a look at some of the efforts by people who are working to keep the Rainier Valley safe and vibrant, as well as police officer staffing levels in the south precinct.


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