Violent Crime on the Rise
The Random Killing of 21-Year-Old Student Nicole Westbrook Highlights a New Problem for the City
On the evening of April 28, about 50 people gathered downtown near Second Avenue and Yesler Way, at the spot where 21-year-old Nicole Westbrook was gunned down as she headed home from a night out with her boyfriend. The crowd was there to support Westbrook's loved ones and honor her life—a life that had just recently brought her from Albuquerque to enroll as a culinary student at the Art Institute of Seattle, and ended with what police are calling a "random" gunshot to her head at around 2 a.m. on April 22.
Chalk drawings on the sidewalk called for justice and described, in a native language, a joining of native nations. "My baby sister is a beautiful young Navajo woman," Marcia Westbrook had said a few days earlier at a City Hall press conference called by Mayor Mike McGinn to address the Westbrook shooting, as well as an alarming overall spike in violent crime that has brought 13 murders since the beginning of the year. "She came here to start a new life with her boyfriend and to achieve one of her goals."
At the vigil, a drum and voice group from the nearby Chief Seattle Club sang to commemorate Westbrook's death on April 25, after days on life support—the final song included one man's voice formed into the sound of a bird. Westbrook's aunt, Joyce Esquer, kept her arms around Westbrook's silent mother for most of the hour-long gathering. And Westbrook's older sister, Marcia, joined the SPD in calling on witnesses captured in security footage of the shooting to come forward.
Police still don't have a suspect in Westbrook's killing, and unfortunately that's a familiar story this year; seven of the 13 murders since January remain unsolved. "I just want justice for my sister," Marcia Westbrook said. "I want somebody to say something, to speak up, to stand up, because they took away our baby, our angel... All I can say is I miss my sister, and I know she's watching over us."
Seattle police officers were on the scene within 20 seconds of the Westbrook shooting, according to McGinn, and two of the first-responding officers were also at the vigil for Westbrook on April 28, standing watch over the proceedings. Afterward, the family shook their hands, thanking them.
Also standing by was Gazelle Williams, the great-aunt of 22-year-old Desmond Jackson, who was shot and killed in February outside Club X in Sodo. His murder marked the seventh in Seattle this year.
"I am just so sorry for this family," Williams said of Westbrook's loved ones. "This changes you."
Williams said the police and mayor should have responded with more alarm and publicity—as they have with Westbrook's shooting—after the February 12 murder of her grand-nephew, Jackson, and the February 5 murder of another young African American man, 25-year-old Petty Officer Third Class Gregory Wayne Anderson Jr.
"The police at least are helping [the Westbrooks]," Williams said. "They aren't doing anything for us. They said it could be up to a year. It's just been horrible. I've told the mayor's office and the Seattle Police Department: I blame them for this murder. How many more families are going to have to go through this? I did not watch the news before, but I do now, and I'm going to attend each one of these memorials."
At his press conference after the Westbrook shooting, McGinn had promised: "We will not rest until we find the person who fired that weapon." On April 30, in response to Williams's criticism of how he handled the shooting of her grand-nephew, McGinn told The Stranger: "I understand where she's coming from."
But McGinn added that he believes he did sound the alarm after that shooting, holding a February 27 press event to talk about the spike in gun violence, declaring a "public safety emergency" on February 21, and visiting sites of the year's murders earlier that month. "Everyone who lives here, who works here, who shops here, and who comes here to enjoy what Seattle has to offer deserves to feel safe and secure," McGinn said on February 27. "That goes for every neighborhood in our city."
McGinn also pointed (as he has at every opportunity lately) to the introduction of police "emphasis patrols" of perceived crime hot spots, recent illegal gun busts, and a reshuffling of officers that's resulted in "almost a record number of officers on patrol."
The question McGinn couldn't definitively answer: What's going on?
When asked directly whether the 13 murders since January—and the 118 reports of gun violence this year, and the 7 percent overall rise in violent crime year-to-date—represent an anomalous spike or an ominous trend, McGinn responded: "That's a good question."
He continued: "We know that last year we had a total of 20 murders, and to date this year we've seen 13. That is deeply concerning. It's hard for me to predict, obviously, what the rest of the year will look like, and we're taking actions to address it. I'm not treating it like a statistical blip... Whether it will or will not be a long-term trend, I don't know."
Why is this happening now?
"That's a good question, too," McGinn said. "I'm not prepared to attribute it to any particular cause. What we've seen is, as we look at most of them, it's generally not youth—you know, 18 and under—who are committing the murders. It's older men. Men in their 20s and 30s, generally." He added a caveat, though, noting that this only goes for the murders "where we know who committed it."
Is there any pattern to the style or motivation of the attacks? "A number of these incidents were drug rip-offs, where the people knew each other, were meeting," McGinn said. "The other type we see is people taking offense, feeling disrespected out at night, and that leads to violence."
"Nicole Westbrook's case doesn't fit that," he added.
McGinn said that at this point, there's really only one thing he's willing to point to as a causal factor: the willingness of people to fire guns at each other. "One of the contributing factors is people think it's okay to go out carrying a gun, and to use a gun in response to an insult or taking offense," McGinn said.
He claims the increased focus on preventing violent crime has brought some results, leading, for example, to a 42 percent decrease in street robberies since October of 2011 in Rainier Valley—where, on November 15, Danny Vega was attacked in a robbery that took his life (some community members think it may also have been a hate crime). "We know that good police work and an engaged community can make a difference," McGinn said.
He and other city leaders have also been working to combat a perceived "no snitching" code that sometimes keeps witnesses from coming forward, and at McGinn's City Hall press conference after the Westbrook shooting, Joyce Esquer, Nicole Westbrook's aunt, joined in that effort. She spoke of the honor and sacrifice shown by Nicole's father, Marshall Alan Westbrook, who was killed while serving with the US military in Iraq; Nicole's uncle, Kenneth Warren Westbrook, who was killed while serving with the US military in Afghanistan; and Nicole's brother, who is just back from a tour of duty.
"There's no honor in what this individual, or individuals, have done," Esquer said, referring to the person (or people) who killed Westbrook. "And there's no honor in silence."