After a violent summer, Southeast Seattle residents are starting to get restless. Between June and August, three kids between the ages of 14 and 18 were killed in the area. In the last month alone, there have been at least half a dozen shootings, many of them attributed to rising tensions between rival gangs. As Mayor Greg Nickels trots out his Youth Violence Prevention Initiative—a $9 million program designed to keep kids out of gangs and reduce violence in South and Central Seattle—South Seattle residents like Rachel Risley and Scott Schenk are getting used to the sounds of gunshots and police helicopters outside their home.
Risley and Schenk, both 37, bought a house in the Brighton Beach neighborhood just over a year ago after 10 years of living on Capitol Hill. Schenk says they wanted to "escape the yuppie invasion" and find a diverse school for their 6-year-old daughter.
In the couple's first year in the neighborhood, Schenk says he's seen prostitutes living in cars on their block, witnessed drug deals at an open-air drug market in front of a neighboring apartment building, and been sucker punched by an aggressive panhandler. "We thought of that as local flavor until the shootings," Risley says.
On September 23, a 30-year-old man was shot late at night on the corner of South Garden Street and Rainier Avenue South, just 300 feet from Risley and Schenk's front door. SPD sent out a fleet of officers and called in a helicopter to search for the shooter but came up emptyhanded. Now, Risley says, they won't let their daughter play in their yard unsupervised, and never after dark.
Schenk and Risley's response, though perhaps overcautious, is hardly unique. On October 2, a crowd of about 60 south-end residents gathered in the basement of the Holly Park Community Church to rage at Seattle Police Department assistant chief Nick Metz, South Precinct captain Les Liggins, and Lieutenant James Koutsky about what some referred to as a "gang war" in the Rainier Valley.
It's easy to attribute Southeast Seattle residents' collective freak-out to the recent influx of white, middle-class homeowners in the area. And with 2008 crime statistics not yet available, the evidence remains anecdotal. Still, residents' concerns do seem to have some validity. So far this year, there have been at least three murders (assault statistics are not yet available) in SPD's South Precinct, compared to six murders and 277 aggravated assaults for all of 2007. Those numbers, however, are still relatively low compared to the nine murders and nearly 600 assaults that took place during the same period in the South Precinct in 1996. And some longtime residents say the recent attention is more about gentrification than any actual surge of violence.
"It's been going on for a while," says South Seattle resident Kwame Wyking Allah Garrett. Garrett, 31—who works with groups like the Seattle Hip-Hop Youth Council and has lived in Central and South Seattle all his life—worries that calls for more police presence will just exacerbate the problem, exposing more young black men to police profiling and negative interactions with SPD.
At last week's meeting, Garrett wasn't shy about pointing fingers at the mostly white crowd for suddenly demanding more police presence in the area. "I know there's not a lot of African Americans in this crowd. We don't want to have this be us versus them, but in this situation, it is," he said.
"I don't think the police are the solution to social issues. What they're calling gang violence is really a socioeconomic issue," Garrett says, pointing out that a persistent lack of police presence in wealthier neighborhoods, such as Madison Park and Queen Anne, hasn't led to a rise in violent crime.
While Southeast Seattle residents remain divided about the appropriate response to violence in their neighborhoods, officers in SPD's South Precinct are struggling to keep up with the problems they've already got.
In January, SPD shifted the South Precinct's boundaries, requiring south-end officers to cover a much larger area. At the October 2 meeting, Captain Liggins strongly implied his precinct was understaffed—a fact he blamed on "city bureaucracy."
With a lack of hard evidence that crime is on the rise, it's still unclear whether South Seattle residents are right that crime is surging. However, with neighbors afraid to go out at night and South Precinct commanders saying staffing numbers won't be at adequate levels for at least another year, it's unlikely South Seattle residents are going to feel safer anytime soon.