Seattleland: The New Chief Might Nail Reform, But Will She Make It Safe To Walk Alone?

As mayor-in-training Ed Murray was happily announcing his choice of former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O'Toole as new police-chief-in-training this week, you could walk along a sidewalk in Rainier Beach and see what they are prepping for. Charlie Smith, who lives up the street, was looking through a bullet hole in a widow at Tino’s Pizza, in the 9400 block of Rainier Avenue South. What he saw was history and turmoil, on the streets and in the police department.

“Same ol’ same ol’,” Smith said. “They like to shoot the guns here.”

The word is that street gangs from the Central District and South Seattle are exchanging steady gunfire again in their decades-long turf war. In less than a week, more than 115 bullets have been sprayed around the south end, 50 of them in the block where Tino’s sits. Whoever was the target late last Thursday, ducked. Cars were left with gaping holes. Windows were shattered and walls split. Tino’s and other businesses, including a medical marijuana shop, opened their doors on Friday to find glass everywhere.

The day before, two gangsters shot at each other in a south-end park, missing but spraying shrapnel on a woman holding a baby. A few days earlier, around the corner from Tino’s, 60 shots were fired apparently at someone who also ducked, leaving the street covered with semi-automatic shell casings.

The city’s apparent crime-prevention strategy—gangsters with bad aim—is working. The shootings made the news, but seemed to have little impact. What’s a hundred flying bullets if no one dies or cares? Maybe the story needed the perspective that the online Rainier Valley Post gave it last weekend: “Almost two and a half years after Seattle Police asked for help dealing with a ‘public safety emergency,’ and two years after the City won a nearly $1 million federal grant to address youth violence in Rainier Beach, there were three violent shoot-outs in the south Rainier Valley this week.”

In truth, aims are not that bad, and three men have died in recent Central District shootings possibly related to the war. These are murders that come and go in a city that we are told is one of America’s safest. But it depends on where you live and your knowledge of the past. There are, for example, not a great deal of pizza-joint drive-bys in Magnolia.

Go to the same Rainier Beach blocks two years ago and the aiming was on target. A 31-year-old man was killed in that stretch of Rainier Avenue on May 16, 2012. A few days before that, another man was shot in the leg. KOMO-TV kept a running tally at the time: “On February 21, two men were shot and killed outside of a restaurant in the 9400 block of Rainier Avenue South. On January 26, a 15-year-old boy and a 29-year-old man were both shot in the 9100 block of Rainier Avenue South. On January 3, two more people were shot outside of a Subway sandwich shop in the 9300 block of Rainier Avenue South. Last September, a man in his 20s was shot in the leg outside of a Safeway in the 9200 block of Rainier Avenue South.” Yes, they like to shoot the guns here.

Sorin Ragsdale, the owner of Tino’s, had closed and gone home before the latest drive-by took out his windows last Thursday. He didn’t seem surprised when he talked to a KING-TV reporter Friday. He had perspective. “We were expecting this to happen because it happened before and we knew it was going to happen again,” he said. The last time, his wife was outside by their car when the bullets whistled past. Ragsdale seemed resigned to life in turf-war crossfire. But, as he was cleaning up the glass, he was mumbling, “Can’t live like this.”

At a recent anti-crime hearing at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center hosted by council member Bruce Harrell, a woman said that in the past, “violent crime was almost all gang-on-gang,” but now the gangs were robbing light-rail commuters walking alone from the station. The police solution to this was, she said, “Don’t walk alone.” Activist Harriett Walden told the crowd, “We have had increased violence because there are no arrests.” It was good that police added more patrols, she said. But all this shooting! “We need to get some people arrested.”

So now there is a new chief—just as there was a new acting chief in January, and a new acting chief a year before that as the department labored under a federal court order to quit abusing people it arrested. The new mayor says that’s one issue, but change at the top is about more than reforming the police department. He visited Tino’s Pizza and the other shot-up businesses over the weekend. He saw the bullet holes. “That’s why this is significant,” he said Monday. So far, so good. Now about those arrests.

Rick Anderson writes about sex, crime, money, and politics, which tend to be the same thing.

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