Seven incidents over the past seven days – none fatal -- prompted city law enforcement officials to hold a Wednesday morning press conference to announce deployment of the mobile police precinct at least through the weekend.
Meanwhile, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels this month launched an $8 million initiative to prevent gang violence. The money will fund support, recreation and educational programs targeted to around 800 middle school students, identified as most at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violence. The goal is ambitious, a 50 youth percent reduction in youth violence in two years.
"So far this year four teens have died from gun violence," said Mariko Lockhart who will direct the initiative for the city. "We will go where the youth are and offer services such as case management, mentoring, anger management, peer mediation, family support and youth employment assistance."
Lockhart will supervise funding and programs run by a handful of nonprofit social service agencies serving youth in south, south central and east Seattle. Some will be based in youth centers, others in four middle schools, Outreach workers, some of them former gang members with criminal records, will play a key role in the Seattle program as they do in similar programs – known as "violence interruption" programs in cities=2 0such as Chicago, Washington DC, Cincinnati and Baltimore.
"They're able to reach kids and engage kids other folks would not be able to reach," Lockhart said. "They have credibility with the kids."
The initiative will be watched closely by people dealing with youth gang violence in cities around the country – including Portland, where the Gang Violence Task Force is currently taking a closer look at Cincinnati Cease Fire to see what strategies might also work in Portland. The task force, which welcomes participation by parents and other community members, efforts in Portland.
"It's not the traditional American way of dealing with criminal behavior," says Rob Ingram, who coordinates the Portland Office of Youth Violence Prevention. " People say: 'You're going to talk to them; they shoot people and sell drugs.'"
Street outreach has cut violence in ot her cities, such as Cincinnati and Boston, despite criticisms that it doesn't solve the underlying problem. Ingram believes the problem must be tackled through a mix of approaches including: early childhood education programs; mentoring; education supports and employment opportunities. But street outreach is vital in stopping the violence, he said.
"It is a great temporary strategy to stop the shootings. David Kennedy (Cincinnati CeaseFire) doesn't profess to do more than that – and that's where he runs into contention because people want him to do more."
After a shooting or violent incident, the risk is high for some kind of retaliation in the following hours, weeks and months, that in turn will lead to more violence. The idea behind street outreach programs is to intervene after a violent incident and interrupt this cycle.
"We can deploy them to the scene to work directly with victims and their friends and associates to prevent retaliation," Locke said. "The outreach team is trained in conflict resolution and de-escalation."
All of Seattle's outreach workers have been thoroughly vetted by the Seattle police department, so anyone who formerly was gang involved is on the right side of the law now, said Jamila Taylor, who supervises the street outreach program run through the Urban League of Seattle. What's more, outreach workers will be vetted every six months, a precautionary measure meant to forestall concerns about the city hiring former gang members.
"We have a mix of people: from people with college degrees to people with a history of criminal behavior. But to be part of our team you have to be a positive role model."
Ingram said this kind of intervention is only possible when police and outreach workers have a strong partnership.
"That partnership is crucial," Ingram says. "We could not do a piece of what we do without law enforcement here."
Street outreach workers want to help young people find the resources they need to stay out of trouble, Ingram said. But it is police officers who are responsible for arresting anyone who commits a violent act.
"Sometimes the only help we can give a person is to remove him from society, and we don't have the power to do that."
Taylor said the goal is to link young people to services that will help them succeed in life.
"We've got to use existing programs that are effective in this community," she said. "We need to give them access to information, opportunities and positive ways of handling problems. We need to give them access to as many told as we can to make the best choices possible.'
Seattle's initiative targets the youth research has shown to be most at risk of committing violent crimes: repeat offenders: youth who have committed petty crimes; middle school students who truant or are at risk of suspension for behavior problems; and victims and their associates.
Opportunities – for education, recreation and employment -- are vital to the program's success, Taylor said.
"The young people don't have to participate, it is voluntary. So we need to treat them with the respect they deserve, celebrate their successes and get them to the next level," she said. "We don't want to give them an opportunity and then close the door on them. We want to make sure there is another door waiting for them at each level when they reach it."
The Rising Toll of Gang Violence
Incidents of gang violence have been on an upswing, not just in the Northwest, but across the country. Rising unemployment especially in minority communities is one contributing factor, observers say. But in Oregon other factors are also in play, says Tom Peavey, a 30-year police officer, who now works with Ingram in Portland's Office of Youth Violence Prevention. In the 1990s after a spate of gang shootings, prosecutors used the federal racketeering statutes to put shooters away for 10 years or more, he said. "So these people were getting out in 2007 and 2008 and not all of them have turned their lives around. They have a notoriety and credibility with a brand new group of youth who didn't see the impact of the violence back then and are looking for an identity."
Peavey said more work needs to happen inside prisons to support inmates whoa re ready to change their morals and character.
"If you have someone who was incarcerated as an affiliate or a n accomplice, they are going to be a criminal when they come out."
In Portland, in 2008 police responded to 68 violent incidents and seized 112 firearms from gang members. Despite the pleas of ministers, family and friends, and the efforts of police and gang outreach workers, shootings led to more shootings, leaving behind a trail of dead young people and ruined lives. Darshawn Cross, Willy Butler and Darius Perry were shot dead. So was high school senior Borisshell Washington, who simply wanted to make the world more beautiful as a hair stylist.
And last weekend four shootings in five days – fortunately none fatal – raised fears that the cycle of violence will start up again, and sent gang outreach workers into overdrive seeking to divert impulses for retaliation, at the same time police are working to take perpetrators off the street. Washington State has seen a similar rise in violence. Five SeattleTacoma, Renton and the Tri-cities area, and left five young people dead in Desert Aire, a small community on the Columbia River in central Washington. Police say more than 100 gangs are active in the greater Seattle area.
To understand the roots of African American street gangs view Made in America, a film by Stacy Peralta about Los Angeles gangs.