For decades, the International District community has called on the city to address evolving, yet constant, manifestations of the same core public safety issues. Community leaders have long called attention to a lack of police presence, the need for better emergency response, and problems with drugs and general safety late at night. City officials are now looking to a public safety task force representing the neighborhood for recommendations on how to proceed.
Suggestions first laid out in packet
Two months after the currently unsolved July 23 murder of Donnie Chin, members of the International District community put together a public safety packet to lay out their concerns and offer suggestions to improve public safety through 34 letters given to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and the city council.
The first letter in the packet written by IDEC board chair Dicky Mar read: “Since 1968, when Donnie Chin first formed IDEC, he had worked tirelessly to help create a community that was a safe, healthy, and vibrant neighborhood. … The problems have not changed much over the years. Instead of public inebriation the community has been plagued by illegal drug sales. Instead of rampant prostitution, we have a proliferation of massage parlors and medical marijuana dispensaries. And instead of no public safety response from police and fire, the community now has to compete with downtown interest to get consistent police patrols.”
Among other suggestions, the letters called on the city to create a permanent policing station or storefront as existed in the 1990s, to consolidate the ID and Little Saigon under one police precinct (they are currently split between the East and West precincts), and to establish an operational work group with the mayor’s office.
“I think a lot of the things in that [public safety packet] we can do, things like public safety forums, a new relationship with the police department and the neighborhoods,” Murray said at an ethnic media roundtable discussion in November. “What’s good about this [packet], and what was good about Donnie [Chin’s strategy in the community was the understanding that] public safety was more than just about policing. It was also about activating parks. It was also about taking care of businesses that are not obeying the law and sometimes actually encouraging criminal activity.”
The creation of a brand new precinct, however, was not a possibility, according to Murray.
“Police precincts are pretty expensive. We need to replace the precinct in North Seattle, and today we don’t have the money for that,” Murray said. “Precincts are literally in the tens of millions, if not in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And basically it is where police officers go to fill out their paperwork, check their equipment, and/or go out onto the streets. It’s not exactly a place for the public to interact with the police. What we’re far more interested in trying to address is how do we actually get real community policing in the city of Seattle. How do we actually get enough officers so that we have foot patrols in our dense neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Little Saigon, officers on bicycles. I think that is going to be more effective than a precinct where people actually can’t go in.”
Diversity in the task force
As part of a response to the community concerns, Murray assembled a public safety task force in December to make recommendations on how to improve public safety in the International District.
Task force members include: Maiko Winkler-Chin (co-chair), Tam Nguyen, (co-chair), Sharyne Shiu-Thornton, David Leong, Richard Mar, Minh-Duc Nguyen, Sue May Ho, Sheila Burrus, I-Miun Liu, Sokha Danh, Abdi Mohamed, Zamzam Mohamed, Larry Larson, Greg Garcia, Paul Murakami, Ron Chew, Sonny Nguyen, Karen Yoshitomi, and Alan Lai.
The International Examiner met with Seattle Police Department Deputy Chief Carmen Best and Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim on December 21 to learn about how the task force will work with the city and police to solve neighborhood residents’ long-standing public safety concerns.
When it comes to policing in the neighborhood, Best said the police are guided by both crime data and by what the ID community is most concerned about—and that these are not always the same. “Sometimes what’s trending as a crime problem isn’t the most concerning thing to the people who live in the neighborhood,” Best said.
For example although car prowls are on the rise in the ID, Best said, it’s less of a concern for neighborhood residents than drug dealing or a perceived lack of visible police.
Best said SPD plans to increase visibility of officers in the neighborhood, but this doesn’t necessarily mean deploying more on the streets, something she said the department does not have resources for.
“We don’t have additional resources, but what we’ve done is we’ve sort of redeployed resources that we do have,” Best said.
Kim echoed the mayor regarding calls for any kind of permanent police station or office in the neighborhood, which, she said, would not be the best use of resources. Kim said that goal of the task force is to unearth the larger systemic issues facing the neighborhood.
“I think one of the things that we are hoping to get out of the task force is to take all of those proposals and get at the sort of underlying [causes and ask,] ‘what is the outcome, or what is the result we’re trying to get to,’ as opposed to saying, ‘oh yes, here’s the solution or proposal that the neighborhood has been talking about for years and years and years.’ Today you haven’t met it. Instead of taking that approach we want to look at again using a data-driven approach to say what is going on and what can we do to address it.”
Kim said that addressing these issues will take more than just this particular task force.
“It’s a very, very daunting goal for the task force, because these are decades-long issues,” Kim said. “What we’re hoping that the task force does and what we’re hoping in bringing all of these diverse perspectives together is to say, okay, we know the way that we’ve been doing things hasn’t been working for the last four decades, so what do we need to do differently?”
The task force is diverse by design, said Kim. The group consists of multiple generations, and includes community leaders, business owners and property owners. Many task force members are part of ethnic organizations reflecting the Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese communities in the area. It was also important that the slightly smaller East African and Native American communities were represented, Kim said.
Sheila Burrus, executive director of the Filipino Community of Seattle, said she was glad to see such a diverse task force. She herself was chosen to be a member due to her advocacy for ID community members’ safety—particularly seniors in the neighborhood.
The task force has met once so far, will hold its second meeting in January, and will come out with its recommendations in spring 2016.
Murray said he sees the new task force as building on the work of the late Donnie Chin.
“The loss of Donnie Chin has left a void in the community. We must take steps to support the neighborhood and challenge the entrenched issues it has faced for decades,” Murray said in a statement on December 15. “I look forward to the task force’s findings as they build on Donnie’s legacy and identify ways to improve economic development, the built environment, and public safety in one of our most diverse and historic neighborhoods.”