Followup: How ‘Operation Center of Attention’ plan sprung from White Center community concerns

This neighborhood will not be a safe haven for criminals. It belongs to the families and people who live in White Center.” – U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan

Story and photos/video by Deanie Schwarz
Reporting for White Center Now

U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan conceived the “proactive” idea to identify “persistent crime problems in White Center and address them head on” soon after one of her Assistant Attorneys attended a White Center/South Delridge Community Safety Coalition meeting earlier this summer.

Up until a few years ago, the federal Weed and Seed program had funded the small public-safety group’s civilian leadership as well as local law enforcement emphasis patrols to keep in check major “hotspots” in the White Center area along 16th Ave SW. But when the grant term ended, so did the assistance of the Seattle Neighborhood Group leadership and consistent hotspot law enforcement, both operationally dependent upon the grant monies. The volunteer “coalition” slowly dwindled in numbers, and soon not even law-enforcement representatives appeared at their meetings.

But the group persisted, even as the King County Sheriff’s Office made further reductions last year in the remaining coverage and the number of on-duty deputies covering the unincorporated area became two, sometimes three officers, to cover the unincorporated area of roughly 17,000 residents.

When Durkan’s office got wind of the desperate appeals of that languishing citizen volunteer group, as well as the overwhelmed concerns of the North Highline Unincorporated Area in the growing unrest and crime of White Center and environs, the federal prosecutor took a closer look. The decisive result was the swift implementation of the three-month investigation of “Operation Center of Attention.” Over the course of 90 days, 26 defendants have been charged federally and another 27 face charges in King County Superior Court while three federal defendants are still at large; sixty-eight guns were confiscated; fifty-one pounds of methamphetamine, two pounds of crack cocaine and more than 10 pounds of powder cocaine, as well as oxycontin and heroin.

The multi-agency teams’ work relied on KCSO undercover officers praised by Durkan for their “amazing” work. Their work focused on activity in two primary White Center businesses considered to be meeting grounds for illegal drug and gun sales, frequently from individuals coming into White Center from other areas. Overall, four White Center businesses were targeted by law enforcement following up on evidence suggesting drug dealing and promotion of prostitution on the premises. According to Durkan, Thursday’s sweeps resulted in two employees charged with crimes at the businesses, though the business names would not be released by the prosecutors. However, WCN was on the scene during the multiple searches at two of the four businesses when Thursday’s arrests were made. Following is a shot of new Storefront Deputy ‘BJ” Myers on his third day of work in White Center with two of the detained individuals in the back of his squad car and a third being held (identifying features blurred)

Durkan said that the next step is those businesses’ landlords will be sent notices regarding the suspected criminal activity on their properties and inform them of possible forfeiture of their property should the crimes continue. Two of the businesses have appraised total values between $438,000 and $521,000. WCN found that one of the other businesses (which has had a closed sign on it since Thursday’s search) was previously and similarly shut down over three years ago. It is located immediately adjacent to the current Storefront Deputy’s Office.

While the spotlight of the search was on the downtown business district in Thursday’s action, the actual geographic focus of the investigations has been broader and included parts of West Seattle, the rest of unincorporated White Center, as well as the cities of Burien, and Seatac. Dubbed “Operation Center of Attention”, White Center was the logistical bullseye of the task force teams’ undercover investigations, spanning neighborhoods as far north as the High Point area of West Seattle and as far south as Seatac. The map indicates the boundaries of the larger area covered in the investigations with White Center as the nexus. The federal prosecutors office told WCN that they were unable to provide an explicit list of locations where the guns and drugs were confiscated as evidence.

The multi-agency teams were led by ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (and Explosives), a division of the United States Department of Justice. The Anti-Violence Gang Unit spearheaded the operation after the federal prosecutors approached them, working with many other agencies (King County Sheriff’s Office, Seattle Police Department, The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigation, the King County Metro Transit Police, Washington State Department of Corrections, Washington State Liquor Control Board and the Eastside Narcotics Task Force). Cooperative individuals were also involved with the undercover operations. An informant for the Liquor Control Board told WCN that they had been providing information to the LCB for months regarding numerous observations of illegal activity inside one of the businesses. This information and other community individuals’ provided information used in building the cases for investigation and was acknowledged by the task force as an element in the investigation’s success.

Dan Satterberg, the King County Prosecuting Attorney, said, “For a single operation to uncover this many offenders involved in the illegal sales of guns and drugs is truly remarkable.” Durkan told the assembled group, “We know that long-term solutions lie in the community, but we will continue to work with them.” The next step is the community meeting organized by the federal prosecutor’s office.

According to Major James Graddon of the King County Sheriff’s Office, the fact that the US Attorney’s Office is convening the upcoming community-wide meeting is unprecedented after a multi-agency task force sweep. The meeting will be held at the Wiley Center at Greenbridge Monday at 7 pm. Durkan and Graddon will be attending, as will elected and other law enforcement representatives. They realize this meeting is happening with very short notice but are hopeful community members will spread the word and attend if possible.

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