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Monday, 4 June 2012

Guns more than gangs are fueling violence in Seattle

Seattle police officials Tuesday said the outbreak of violence through Memorial Day weekend and since the beginning of the year has more to do with guns than with gangs. Deputy Police Chief Nick Metz and Assistant Chief for Operations Paul McDonagh said that, while gang activity has played a role in the jump in homicides this year — 15 to date compared with 21 in all of 2011 — the common denominator is the use of firearms. "A person who has a gun is more likely to use a gun," Metz said after the weekly council briefing. The pair addressed the City Council on Tuesday to talk about the recent spate of shootings and the Police Department's stepped-up response. Police are trying to pinpoint a reason or reasons for the recent violence and are combing through cases as far back as October, when they noticed an uptick in seemingly random incidents. "We don't know" what has prompted the violence, said Jim Pugel, assistant police chief of investigations. "If we knew, we'd be able to put a stop to it, and that's the frustrating part." Metz and McDonagh outlined to the council plans to curb violence that dealt with people — not firearms. Those include putting more officers on the street in areas with high crime and a high number of violent incidents. They also called on community members with information about crime to contact police, even anonymously. Community-outreach officers also are planning a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Garfield Community Center with the East Precinct Advisory Council. The meeting is in response to the shooting of Justin Ferrari, a Madrona father who was killed Thursday afternoon at a busy Central Area intersection while running errands with his children and parents. Police said the shooter was aiming at someone else across the street. That crime in particular, Metz told the City Council, has created a great deal of concern because of "its randomness and the fact that it could have been just about anybody." No arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing, police officials said. An alleged Seattle gang member, meanwhile, was arrested on suspicion of the Saturday-night shooting near the Space Needle that left one bystander wounded. And one of four drive-by shootings that night was at the former home of a gang member, Metz told City Council members. On April 22, Nicole Westbrook, who had just moved to Seattle to attend culinary school, was fatally shot as she walked home to her Pioneer Square apartment, apparently by someone shooting at another person. Pugel said special-emphasis patrols, which were deployed to high-crime areas in the East, West and South precincts last weekend, will continue. SWAT officers assigned to anti-crime teams, gang detectives and some traffic units are being added to patrol units to "change up the delivery of officers to problem areas," he said. At the session, Councilmember Tom Rasmussen noted that the Police Department's response is not new. It previously has tried deploying more patrol officers and asking community members to report suspicious activity. "I have some skepticism about whether this will have any effect," Rasmussen said. "We have seen many community vigils, community mobilizations. We've heard about these strategies before. What's going to change?" Carmen Best, acting captain for community outreach, said renewed efforts would help ease community fears and get more neighbors actively involved in fighting crime. "Whenever community members come together and talk about crime," she said, "it does have a positive effect." A few years ago, the city experienced a rash of shootings involving children younger than 18, and the gang violence centered on rivals battling it out in the Central Area and Rainier Valley, Pugel said. Now though, he said, "most of these aren't school-aged kids" involved in the violence, but adults in the 19-to-30 age range. He said there seems to be "no inhibition by people to resolve whatever dispute they have by resorting to firearms." During both Westbrook's slaying and Saturday's nonfatal shooting of a bystander near the Space Needle after a dispute between two gang members, "police officers were within a couple hundred feet," Pugel said. "The presence of the officer doesn't seem to be deterring someone bent on shooting someone," he said. Councilmember Nick Licata said that though Seattle has one of the lowest homicide rates among the nation's big cities, the increase this year is "not good." He questioned how police can break the "code of silence" that prevents some community members from reporting suspected criminals to police. He told those at the meeting that the lack of community trust and unwillingness to assist police is "one of the biggest barriers to effective policing." "How do we demonstrate to them that they can trust us," Licata asked, "that we will be treating them with respect and keeping our agreements to bring them into" discussions and collaboration about crime and police response? After the council briefing, James Bible, local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said reducing violence would have to come from the community. He said police react to immediate incidents, but that offering alternative choices to youth needs to come from churches, community centers and respected elders. He called on the city to not reduce funding for youth-violence-prevention initiatives including after-school programs and parks and recreation activities. "Are we funding the things that give kids opportunity and hope?" he asked. But Bible was critical of the Police Department's relationship with the community and noted the U.S. Department of Justice currently is negotiating an agreement with the city over its finding of excessive use of force by Seattle police. He said community members would be more willing to come forward and give information about crime if they trusted police. "If you punch a kid one day and come to talk with him about what he knows another day, he might not be motivated to help," Bible said. Councilmember Tim Burgess also said after the briefing that settling the Justice Department's findings against the Police Department and implementing recommended changes would be the best way to restore community trust. "That doesn't seem to be happening," he said, alluding to stalled settlement talks between Mayor Mike McGinn's office and federal officials. "It's extremely important to our community and to our police," Burgess said.



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