Four months after Donnie Chin, founder and director of the International District Emergency Center (IDEC), was killed during a shootout between rival gangs, Washington State Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos organized a public meeting at the Nagomi Teahouse so police could update the community on the progress of the murder investigation—something she felt they hadn’t been doing enough.
Around 80 people attended the November 24 meeting. Joining them was City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, recently elected to represent District 2, which includes the International District; King County Councilmember Joe McDermott; Deputy Chief Carmen Best, second in command at the Seattle Police Department; and Representative Santos herself. Connie Chin, Donnie’s sister, also attended.
The meeting began with an announcement about the future of the International District Emergency Center (IDEC), the volunteer organization Donnie Chin founded to provide emergency response services for the neighborhood. IDEC was left without a director after Donnie Chin’s death. IDEC board chair Richard Mar said the organization will continue to operate, and work with the public safety coordinator, community, and partners to address safety and health needs in the neighborhood, Mar said.
When the meeting turned to the investigation into Donnie Chin’s murder, Best had little news to report.
“I wish I could start this meeting by saying we have breaking news and an arrest, but we don’t yet,” Best said.
Best explained to the audience that details of the case cannot be released to the public, as they could jeopardize a future case. This was not enough for some community members present. Assunta Ng, founder of the Seattle Chinese Post and Northwest Asian Weekly, expressed her frustrations with lack of progress on the case.
“I’m very sick and tired of hearing the same excuses or reasons about Donnie Chin’s case,” Ng said, “that you are working on leads, following on leads and can’t release any information because it might jeopardize the case.”
Ng asked Best if she could at least rank the progress of the investigation on a scale from one to five. But Best reiterated that she could only reveal limited information about the case.
“What are you looking for? I can’t give you a suspect name even if I had one, because that would jeopardize the case,” Best said. “I know that frustrates people but that is the truth of the matter. … I can’t put a number on it, I can’t tell you exactly where they are. I can tell you it’s active and it’s ongoing and they’re working on it, I was told, daily.”
Over the course of the evening, several more audience members and community leaders joined in expressing their frustration with SPD’s response.
“I think Assunta hit a nerve that has been pulsating in this community since July 23rd,” Santos said, reiterating the reason why she organized the meeting. “We don’t want to hear anymore that this is an active investigation. We’ve already heard that. We’ve heard that message since day one. We have heard nothing more since then.”
Santos urged Best to keep in regular contact with the community, even when there’s nothing new to report.
Community leader Elaine Ikoma Ko said she would like more transparency and accountability from the police.
“We would have hoped that you would have gotten these leads done the first week after the murder and you’re talking months now—silence. You can’t blame us for having no confidence,” Ko said. “I have no question that the police department wants to solve this case, but without accountability I don’t think it’s going to happen. … There’s not a day goes by that some of us don’t grieve deeply for the loss of Donnie. There’s some of us in this room that were so close to him that it’s beyond—there’s no words.”
During a similar meeting held September 23, SPD Assistant Chief Bob Merner stated that police know which two gangs—both East African—were involved in the shooting that claimed Chin’s life. Merner said the police need the cooperation of someone from one of the gangs in order to make an arrest. Over the course of the November 24 meeting, however, Best avoided discussing details of the investigation, even details such as these, already in the public record.
Community leader Cindy Domingo suggested a joint meeting between the International District and East African communities to build stronger ties between the communities. Domingo also said that people who might know something about the case might be too intimidated to come forward. Best agreed, but said she could not single out any particular community as connected to the murder.
Harrell suggested that to reassure community members that police are doing all they can on the case, he could meet with the mayor, Deputy Chief Best, SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole, and perhaps a detective, and report back to the community in a later meeting.
Members of the audience also voiced their frustrations with public safety in the neighborhood. Several people asked when they would see more police on the streets.
Earlier during the meeting, Harrell and Best explained some of the difficulties in achieving this. The city had hired a consultant for $500,000 to assess staffing needs of the department, but the information wasn’t available in time for budget season. In addition, Harrell said, the city had been in intense negotiations with the police guild. However, according to Best, the city expects to see at least 100 new officers hired over the next two years.
Near the end of the meeting, Best thanked the community for holding the police accountable for solving the murder.
According to Best, the police are working on obtaining cooperation from people who may know something about the case.
“We’re going to implore anybody who knows anything to come forward,” she said. “Sometimes it takes time—somebody may feel you know people know, so somebody may at some point have a stroke of conscience and decide to report some information, but we’re also still doing our own optimal investigation.”
Connie Chin spoke briefly, urging anyone who knew of anything about the case to come forward.
Following the meeting, community members had a range of reactions.
“I guess the assistant chief gave us as much information as she’s allowed to give, but there’s a lot more that’s been happening that we want to know,” said community leader Bob Santos. “How many suspects are there? They know who they are, they know the suspects, they know everybody that was in that bar at that lounge that evening.”
Robert Lohmann has lived in the ID for around eight years. He said he found the meeting slightly predictable, but encouraging.
“I think to a very significant degree they’re invested in this,” he said of the police and politicians. “They want to get this done.”
Representative Santos said the cause of frustration was a lack of communication from the police regarding the investigation.
“I think it’s clear after tonight’s meeting that the Seattle Police department understands that there is an expectation that they honor that commitment to remain in regular dialogue with us,” she said. “For myself, I feel that same personal sense of frustration, anger, and distrust, and so the balancing act I’ve had to play is, as a public elected official, I also understand that processes take time to play out.”
Donnie Chin case informational meeting November 24, 2015 • Photos by Isaac Liu