That much was assured after 24-year-old William Tolliver and his friend, Marquise Tolbert, allegedly ignited a shootout in downtown Seattle two weeks ago that killed a woman and wounded seven others, including a 9-year-old boy. (After being arrested in Las Vegas, both William and Marquise face charges of first-degree murder and six counts of assault in the first degree.)
Your heart breaks for the eight people and their families whose lives will never be the same. It shatters when you know the person who helped cause their pain.
William is a cousin of my youngest brother, whom my parents adopted when I was in high school.
I hadn’t seen William since he was a teenager, over five years ago. His visits to my parents’ home in those early days were marked by a foreboding sadness. My immediate family worried about him, a fear borne of William’s constant exposure to drugs, gangs, violence and petty robberies. As a teenager from a troubled home, he seemed at times to be raising himself.
The scant invocations he heard of the consequences of his chosen path were no match for the bludgeoning by his chaotic environment.
Violent situations spawn violent people. It doesn’t matter if you have a two-parent household if neither parent supports positive life choices. It becomes a cycle that, unless disrupted, continues indefinitely.
It’s why it’s so hard for me to sympathize with the clamor of voices demanding more policing in response to the downtown violence. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, noting the hiring effort underway by the Seattle Police Department, told KOMO News, “We want more police officers.” A sheriff’s deputy, speaking anonymously to conservative commentator Jason Rantz, advocated harsher tactics and cited New York City’s discredited and racist “stop and frisk” policy as a proven method for cleaning up the streets. A growing chorus of social media posts have also pleaded for more punitive responses to drug crimes.
I understand the knee jerk fear triggered by the violence in downtown Seattle. But to witness William’s life trajectory from an impressionable boy to a steel-hearted young man is to recognize the futility of draconian responses to crime.
Solutions to our city’s recent tragedies cannot be driven by fear, or else we risk unleashing further trauma upon youth and already traumatized communities. This is the assessment of many community leaders I spoke with who stress the importance of strategic mentorship over aggressive policing.
Proven crime-prevention strategies
“Being reactive is only a bandage in these situations,” says Marty Jackson, the southeast network executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of King County. “We have to remind folks of the unintended consequences of policy fueled by fear and false narratives. There’s a lot of historic trauma and harm by law enforcement.”
Jackson has mentored hundreds of South Seattle kids over two decades, and says she’s had several emotional conversations with youth since the Jan. 22 shooting. Most have revolved around their concerns that the dominant cultural narrative around violence prevention isn’t fully informed by what’s working. And, according to Jackson, what’s working has been both mentoring and community-led programs aimed at supporting teenagers.
She points to the current Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth Initiative. The place-based violence prevention initiative, initially funded by a grant from the Department of Justice before the city took over funding in 2016, decreased youth violence in five crime “hot spots” around the South Seattle neighborhood between 2011 and 2018.
The violence prevention initiative relied on five nonarrest strategies, including “corner greeter” stations, where youth offered passersby refreshments; a “safe passage” program in which adults escorted youth leaving school; and relationship building between businesses and youth. The results showed a decline in violent crime (assaults, armed robbery), particularly youth crime, in the five designated hotspots compared with the rest of the South Precinct.
Research assessing the initiative showed that crackdowns and arrests were effective at reducing crime in a specific hotspot. But the true impact of those actions is less clear. Arrests and prosecution actually increased the likelihood that those caught would reoffend elsewhere.
Early contact with the justice system puts kids on a path toward violent and chronic offending as adults, according to a study published in the Western Criminology Review. With 44 arrests on his record before Las Vegas police apprehended William, his life provides tragic confirmation of the data.
It’s why Jackson says the city can’t afford to make “emotionally charged” decisions when it comes to public policy and should commit to looking closely at proven strategies for preventing violence.
“I’m not at all trying to trivialize the shootings that happened. I want to feel safe, too, the same as everyone else,” says Jackson.
“We have to understand that these young men are also part of our community, through the good and bad.”
‘We’ve been walking this path for decades’
The adage that “hurt people hurt people” is one retired King County Superior Court Judge Wesley Saint Clair knows well. He came face to face with thousands of young people who filtered through the juvenile court he presided over for nearly 16 years.
“I remember listening to two boys who were first robbed by fists, then by gunpoint, then three years later started robbing people themselves,” he says. “Our systemic response isn’t, how do we heal children — who’ve been hurt — in healthy ways? And because of that, [those children] end up asking, ’How can I inflict this pain on someone else?’ ”
Saint Clair says the vast majority of the youth who came through his courtroom, even those charged with murder, were anguished by their decisions and were still maturing.
“Their brains weren’t mature, and don’t do so until they turn 25,” he says, referring to the current neuroscience on brain development.
Over the years, it became undeniable those summoned to his courtroom were in need of love.
“Young people want boundaries. They want to be guided along a path of some sorts. They want you to grieve with them when they’re struggling, and to validate them and listen to them,” he says.
That shouldn’t mean we dismiss a young person’s agency in their decision making, but we should also examine our society’s own agency in contributing to their plight.
A recent visit to Monroe Prison illuminated the point for Saint Clair. Of the prisoners he spoke with — some he’d crossed paths with as a judge — most had never had a sustained positive influence in their lives. Statistics show that one-time wards of the state are almost 66% more likely to end up in jail, a clarion sign that we are failing to take care of children at the most vulnerable and formative years of their lives.
Saint Clair says society needs to be more proactive. That means applying preventive methods from an early age and identifying behavioral patterns that can signal red flags at home, including inappropriate language and violent hitting as early as first and second grade. This awareness needs to be paired with peer-to-peer mentors — that is, case workers with a similar lived experience — who can be responsive to the complex needs of our youth. And there needs to be a long-lasting commitment, at least 10 to 15 years, suggests Saint Clair.
“We’ve been walking this path for decades,” says Saint Clair. “It’s going to take decades to get us out of it.”
Turning fear into empathy
Shauntika Woods’ life speaks to what such a commitment can do. Growing up on South Genesee Street, in South Seattle, she says her life was a swirl of chaos until about 8 years old, when her mentor, Sarah White, came into her life via a now defunct mentorship program.
“Mentorship saved my life,” says Woods, now 27.
It provided her an alternative vision to the drugs and violence she was exposed to in her home life.
White is still in Woods’ life today, along with a handful of other mentors who have been there through struggles ranging from self-confidence issues to homelessness.
Today, as the director of 206 Forward, Woods does for dozens what White did for her. The leadership development group, founded in 2014, trains South Seattle youth in public speaking, civic advocacy with city leadership and community building — literally. Last year the group built tiny homes for those experiencing homelessness in the area.
Seeing mentorship in action is why Woods hopes the city’s current climate of fear turns into empathy.
“It’s hard for people who have never had to struggle to survive, never had to go hungry or live in poverty, to not just automatically say we need more resources around punishment for people, even though that’s setting our youth up for failure,” Woods says.
Woods knew a lot of people who grew up without mentors or supportive families. Many ended up incarcerated, or in a grave. Hearing White recount these sad stories, I wondered why more people who claim to be fed up with violence, and who crave a more punitive response to it, aren’t flocking in droves to volunteer at their nearby mentorship program. Many of these programs, including the Youth Tutoring Program I participate in every Monday, have a surplus of children in need and a shortage of people willing to show they care about them.
There isn’t a jail sentence long enough to replace a caring adult. There isn’t a jail large enough to deter the seeking of belonging that gangs many times provide. There isn’t enough fear that will ever replace the words “I love you.” And “you matter to me.”
This was continually reinforced to me over the past 10 years I have served as a youth mentor. It requires heaps of patience, endurance and resolve. But so do most things worth doing.
Right after the holidays, the weather caromed from rain to sunshine in that signature Seattle way. I was at work in the library when I bumped into Noah, an old mentee of mine from the Youth Tutoring Program.
Now a student at Whatcom Community College, he used to carry around a heavy indifference to school and most everything else.
As we chatted, I remembered all the days I wanted to stop showing up to our sessions at the Lake Washington Tutoring Center. I kept telling myself, “This is too hard. I’m wasting my time. Nothing’s sinking in...”
In that moment with Noah, I felt so glad I kept going. We embraced before saying goodbye.
He walked out the doors. The rain had cleared. Nothing but sunlight before him.