Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for White Center Now
“It’s so much better than it’s ever been.” “Know your neighbors, know your neighborhood, talk to each other.” “If you do see something suspicious, call 911, don’t wait.”
Those were some of the recurring messages on Thursday night from police and neighbors alike regarding criminal activity in White Center, as business owners and residents gathered to hear from representatives from the King County Sheriff’s Office.
The community-organized forum, held at the RJB Photo Studio in downtown White Center, featured guest speaker and storefront deputy Bill Kennamer, who has been in that role for 4 years and has worked in the precinct for 21 years. “I love White Center,” Kennamer said, adding that there certainly are challenges in the area, but a close working relationship with the community is essential to keeping neighbors safe.
Kennamer said there is a general perception that White Center is dangerous, and that things are getting worse. “We’re in ‘Rat City,’ right?” he joked, drawing simultaneous laughs, groans and “yep’s” from neighbors in attendance. “It used to be crazy here, it’s true, but the crime numbers across the broad are down,” Kennamer said, with the exception of some events in the month of March that drew regional attention (see our recent coverage in the Crime section on White Center Now)
Kennamer said that, in his opinion, social media is a factor: “People share a story about a single crime that happened, it gets shared over and over, and looks like more that it is. If there is a story about a murder and it gets shared 4 times, there are people who think it’s 4 different murders in a week.” That said, Kennamer acknowledged that there was a spike in recent weeks with several acts of violence, but noted that “100% of them have been solved.” He shared a handout showing KCSO dispatch statistics for the past two years:
(Both charts created by J. Hobbs, Centralized Crime Analyst, April 2019)
Year over year, most categories of crime statistics in the area are steady or down, with some exceptions — “We got crushed last month with auto thefts,” Kennamer said, noting that auto theft recoveries were also up but that can be largely attributed to “cars stolen elsewhere and dumped here.”
Kennamer and neighbors in attendance agreed that there is always a small increase in the summer months “when the weather is nice” and “school is out, people are outside and some are causing trouble.” But Kennamer stressed that from his perspective, as someone who has “worked the streets of White Center for 21 years,” it’s no longer the “wild wild west that it used to be,” in large part because of neighborhood and business revitalization and community involvement. White Center has grown significantly, Kennamer noted, and “with an increase in population you’d think that crime would be going up, but overall it’s not, it’s going down.”
With regard to population and police coverage, Kennamer said there are roughly 15,000-17,000 people who live in the area (compared to 52,000 in Burien, for example) and that KCSO divides the area into three parts:
- K1: North Highline, from 116th to Roxbury and from 30th to 509
- K11: King County Housing Authority, including Seola Gardens and Greenbridge
- K7: Everything in unincorporated King County east of 509, including much of South Park and Boulevard Park to the river
Staffing numbers are an issue and always have been, Kennamer said, noting that there are typically 2 deputies on duty at a time, which becomes an issue in situations when officers need to respond to criminal activity and bring people to jail, which means that “there are no cops in White Center” during those times. This was echoed by KCSO Sergeant Kelly Park, also in attendance (pictured below), who noted that longtime deputy Jeff Hancock was promoted to detective just last week, and will have some additional resources to work with. Kennamer added that Hancock will have an office in Greenbridge, and has an unmatched depth of knowledge of the area (“he remembers everyone’s name, places, dates of birth, you name it”).
A question from the crowd: “Who determines staffing, and how do we help you get more?” Kennamer and Park explained that KCSO staffing is determined as part of the King County budget process, and that council member Joe McDermott is the person that residents could talk to that would have the most influence. “But the staffing levels haven’t changed in my 21 years,” Kennamer said, and getting extra funding is tough. He added that his own duties focus on “quality of life” crimes and issues, and he usually works 9-5, 40hrs per week, but at any time of day (including at night, when the potential for trouble is higher), “we still have only two cops.” In response to a follow-up question about funding levels in White Center compared to other areas, Park responded that funding levels are higher in Seattle because it’s a municipality. In areas like Burien and SeaTac, there are contracts that determine funding levels. For White Center, the budget is determined by the King County Council.
Raw notes from the meeting Q&A are below:
- Q from an attendee: This turnout tonight is amazing, how do we keep the momentum going and keep everyone engaged in our community? Kennamer: The only real positive changes I’ve seen over the years is when these community voices get together. Great organizations like North Highline Unincorporated Area Council (NHUAC) do a great job of getting government leaders here to speak with neighbors. A plug from NHUAC’s Barbara Dobkin: We’ve worked hard to keep the storefront deputy position (Kennamer’s job) over the years, have testified in front of King County Council many times. Our meetings are the first Thursday of each month (next is May 2 at 7pm at the North Highline Fire Station with guest speaker John Taylor from King County Local Services to talk about code enforcement and permitting). We get great support from White Center Now and West Seattle Blog and coverage of our meetings… We’re always part of Jubilee Days (in July). A plug for King County Local Services from communications manager Jerry Pionk and community liaison Bong Sto. Domingo, both of whom encourage residents to send email to email@example.com with questions or concerns. Kennamer echoed that the partnership between his office and Local Services has always been extremely strong, and added “look at this crowd here tonight — if you get leaders to gatherings like this and put their feet their flame, things will change.” He also added that John Taylor is a great resource but has “a huge list” of priorities, so it’s up to citizens to help determine priorities. Another attendee suggested contacting Sen. Joe Nguyen, the recently elected state senator from the 34th district (who will be at NHUAC’s June meeting). Tommy Martin from the White Center Chamber of Commerce also put in a plug for the work that the Chamber does. Another attendee asked: what’s the best way to get Dow Constantine (King County Executive) involved with these issues? Attendees noted that sending emails to his office tends to be effective, as he is typically very engaged with the community. Another attendee said that the work of the White Center Community Development Association (CDA) and community engagement manager Aaron Garcia has been “amazing.” Attendees also collected names and email addresses at the meeting, for future networking.
- Q from an attendee: My husband has lived in White Center for 40 years, we used to have break-ins all the time, but over the years it’s become much better. However, we now have a neighbor (a lady in her late 60s who used to be very nice but has struggled with drugs) who is constantly coming onto property and breaking into cars. We’ve called the police so many times, they confront her but the punishment is always just a slap on the wrist. It is costing me money to fight this, I love my neighborhood, but what more can I do? A from Kennamer: Clearly you are a victim, but this is a tough situation. The crimes you are describing are “low-level quality of life” crimes. Prosecuting drug issues is difficult — for example, for heroin possession, anything under 1 gram there’s not much we can, for 1-3 grams that’s misdemeanor court. Trespassing crimes tend to be dismissed immediately. We can’t force people into treatment. A lot of people have watched the Seattle Is Dying program and have opinions. These problems are difficult to fix, “way above my pay grade,” but I agree that something has to change. Follow-up Q from the same person: I know that these issues are going on with her, I have documented everything and kept case numbers. If I go there myself and talk to the prosecuting attorney, is that enough, if I can prove that they’re dealing drugs? A: You can phone in a narcotics activity report that goes to a narcotics officer. The attendee and Kennamer agreed to talk after the meeting and exchange information.
- Comment from attendee Malika Lamont, project manager for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion: We will be working more in White Center soon, looking for an office, we work with public defenders. Our staff can work with low-level offenders with behavioral health issues, but we can’t put our staff in harm’s way. We’ve worked on funding with Dow Constantine. Need to launch in Burien first, then in White Center in about 6 months, have to train officers and get case management staff, it’s a very involved process, the goal is “ongoing wrap-around support.”
- Q from a business neighbor: How can we address the biggest problem I see, which is with kids loitering right in front of my business? Are there youth programs we can utilize? A from Kennamer: Resources are being spent on that issue, you will hopefully see a difference.
- Q from another attendee: What can we as a community do to help? Last week on my street we had cars broken into and mailboxes broken and things all over the street, and we haven’t even hit summer yet. A from Kennamer: It’s challenging with only 2 people on staff, but we do what we can. I live in Renton, and we see issues there too (the “low-level quality of life” crimes).
- Comment from an attendee: To those newer people who just moved here, keep your chin up, this is a great neighborhood. My first experience here was working at Company in 2011, I had friends from other parts of Seattle tell me that White Center was a “ghetto” and I told them they were crazy and must have never traveled anywhere else. This is a fantastic vibrant community, and the presence of the crowd in this room tonight represents that. With regard to engaging with political leaders, you can certainly email or call them, but in my experience, face-to-face communication is the most powerful and nothing is better than sitting down with them, that’s the way policy and politics works. We as a group can find out where and when the meetings are, bring 10 people to comment and say “you need more officers in White Center” and just do it and say it over and over again. We definitely should all stay connected, share email addresses, use Facebook.
- Comment from an attendee: I was part of an activity group that did exactly what the previous person said, we went to all kinds of meetings and commented. King County meets on Monday afternoons, public comments are allowed at some meetings and are allotted 2 minutes per citizen to talk about relevant issues. In my experience, you may do it once and nothing happens, but it’s the beginning of something. It’s a matter of taking a bus downtown, going outside of your comfort zone, being as forceful as possible but using the process. There are a lot of good things going on but the issue is a lack of coordination. The bottom line is that it’s no one else’s job to clean up our community than our own.
- Q: It seems like there are lots of drugs on the street, what’s being done about that, it seems logical that if we take away the drugs then there won’t be drug users. A from Kennamer: There are still problems but it has decreased; before Sudafed was made illegal about 10 years ago, we were cleaning up 300 meth labs per year, that has gone down significantly because meth isn’t economically easy to make now. Experts say many of the drugs are coming from Mexico. Comment for another attendee: Often the drug use is linked to homelessness but that’s not accurate, it doesn’t matter who is using it, but has the sheriff’s office done anything about heroin coming in? A from Sergeant Park: Precinct 4 has a special emphasis team that works on this, and works with ATF. But as mentioned earlier, we don’t prosecute you for less than 3 grams of heroin, so to be effective we have to go to the bigger dealers, the problem is you take one down and another one moves in to take the business. Follow-up Q: If drugs are a problem, how much drug work can actually be done with just two officers on staff at a time? A from Kennamer: Very little proactive police work goes on, to be frank.
- Q: It seems like there is gang activity in White Center, right, especially on Ambaum corridor? A from Kennamer: We watch for gangs, but it’s not a big problem. We will start a Thu/Fri/Sat emphasis to work on violent activities (not gangs) in that area of 16th Ave and Ambaum corridor. As far as we know there aren’t any Latino gangs with “clubhouses” in White Center, but we know there is one in South Park and a couple in Burien, and guess who is in the middle of that? A lot of the violence we saw last month (in my opinion) wasn’t targeted, it was a crime of opportunity. Graffiti is blowing up as a problem, though, we find that if we cover it up quickly then they’ll go somewhere else because they want the graffiti to be seen, so we didn’t solve the problem we just displaced it, but we do what we can. Follow-up Q: But based on graffiti and signs that I’ve seen, it does seem like there are pretty big-time gangs here, like the ones affiliated with El Chapo. A from Kennamer: No, we don’t see that, we certainly have in the past like in the late 1990s with some serious Asian gangs, but we’re not aware of any gang clubhouses in WC. Follow-up comment: I encourage us to share info with each other, come together with neighborhood watches, use our great resources like the CDA and chamber, and share contact info so we can communicate when we see graffiti and other issues. Kennamer: I saw this happening in a good way just last week, a neighbor was painting over graffiti, it’s a great thing to do to keep the neighborhood safer and it looks better.
- Comment/Q: I also watched the “Seattle Is Dying” show, it said Seattle doesn’t have a homeless problem, it has a drug problem. I was an addict in the late 1980s, back then you could get any drug you wanted, and now you still can, drugs always been here. But lots of things have changed to make the situation work: the economy is hostile to working people, hard to make ends meet, social safety net is not working, we pay half income for a tiny apartment. So I just want to say let’s look at big picture, if someone gets in bad spot, life happens, you can fall farther faster now than ever before. Response from Kennamer: I hear what you’re saying, but something I truly believe that I say to homeless people we encounter, is that in the history of world, there has never been a place easier to get help and services than in Seattle in 2019. I’m not saying it’s as easy as many people think it is, there are no barrels of money, you have to go get it. I’m not sure how to fix the problem, if anyone really knew how to fix it, it would be fixed. But there are services available. I can get a homeless individual into a bed today, before it gets dark, but not everything is easy.
- Q: You said the crime rate is consistent, but sometimes there are spikes, what causes spikes? A from Kennamer: Sometimes we don’t know, but we always get busier at summer and Christmas. I can’t stress enough how much it helps to know your neighbors, if you think something weird is happening, call 911 right away, we can’t catch everyone but we try. But the community can help us; if I’m driving around I don’t know that the yellow jalopy parked on the side doesn’t belong there, but you and your neighbors do. Know your neighbors and know your neighborhood.
- Q: Recently all of the mailboxes in our area were broken into, I tried to call about it but was bounced around, after about 20 minutes I gave up and ultimately didn’t report that all of the mailboxes in a 3-block area were broken into, I think you’d get more reports if the system were better. A from Sergeant Park: That’s great feedback and I’ll take it back to the team. However, please know that in cases like that, it’s still OK to call 911, we’d rather you did that than didn’t call at all. You can call the non-emergency hotline, but regular 911 is OK too. Kennamer: it’s usually the same people picking up the phone, so yes, just call.
- Q: Bartell Drugs has been in the news with several problems there, I was in there recently and saw two people looting and shoving, I talked to the staff and they said they had been told by corporate not to do anything. There is a security guard in there now, which is so much better, for a long time it seems like the employees felt scared, but they’ve told me that they want us to call corporate and make suggestions. A from Kennamer: Bartells has always been a good partner with us, being diligent, covering graffiti, and yes we should do whatever we can to help them.
- Q: My sister has been an officer in Mercer Island for years, did DARE, now does disaster relief drills, do we do that in White Center? A: Yes, King County emergency preparedness. Comment from an attendee: I work with response groups that coordinate with the WA National Guard, working with Seattle emergency teams. There are lots of ways to get involved. For example, the West Seattle Amateur Radio Club meets once per month.
- Comment: All of these different community groups with websites and Facebook pages and Instagram pages should all link to each other, so it’s easier to find information and it’s all connected.
- Comment: We should all do our part to clean up trash in the neighborhood. If things are cleaner, it just makes everything better, let’s take some pride and do it.
- Q: During the February snowstorms we had a car prowler, our neighbor held the person, was recognizable to us, but my neighbor didn’t want to press charges, even though it was a repeat offender. Is there a threshold and what can I do in that situation? A from Kennamer: We have to have a victim in order to do anything, if there is no victim then there is no crime. Follow-up: How do you convince someone to press charges, to educate them and say “you let that lady go, now she went down the street and broke into someone else’s window?” Kennamer: Yes, just keep trying to explain it to people, they need to press charges. That’s why I book people for shoplifting, because if I don’t they’ll just do it again.
- Comment: It seems like the solutions to a lot of these problems are community involvement and coordination, and I agree with that. I live by Holy Family, it’s a dead-end street, nobody passes through, everyone on that street is visible. We can be involved with neighbors, often we can’t get a deputy out here but we can engage with the suspicious person (“we see you!”), call a friend and, as long as you feel safe doing it, go out and just look at the person and they’ll often move along. Kennamer: Totally agree. If you make it uncomfortable for them, you will often solve your problem.
- Q: Can we get an organizing template for a blockwatch? A from Barbara from NHUAC: Yes we’ve had meetings about that. There is another blockwatch meeting coming up for White Center, April 23rd at 7 pm at the White Center Library.
- Q: Aside from lobbying for more officers, what can we do to make a difference? Another question: what about the work crews that used to pick up garbage? Comment: send email to firstname.lastname@example.org and it will get to the right people to help with work crews. Kennamer: It would definitely be great to have more resources, even just 3 officers on duty instead of 2, otherwise if there are in-progress act of violence then we have no resources left. Aside from helping us with that, pick up trash and keep businesses clean, know your neighbors.
- Q: When is appropriate time to call cops? I feel like I hear conflicting information — if I see sketchy people in my alley, but I can’t see anything illegal, should I confront them? A from Kennamer: My recommendation is always to call 911 for suspicious activity, if you don’t call then there is no chance they’ll come. Follow-up: I can tell them to get out of my alley and they’ll tell me to “f off,” I want to take care of it myself but I don’t want to put myself in jeopardy. Sergeant Park: We don’t want you to put yourself in jeopardy either, call us and describe what you see and give as much info as you can, if your intuition says it’s weird, then call 911. Kennamer: I consistently say that if you’re thinking “should I call the cops,” that means you should do it, let dispatch do their job. Follow-up comment: I went to multiple meetings recently and there seem to be mixed messages about when to call, and how to use things like the Find It Fix It app (per another attendee, Find It Fix It doesn’t work in White Center anyway, it’s only Seattle). Sergeant Park: Text-to-911 is coming to our area this summer (working on both emergency and non-emergency). Kennamer: the King County Abandoned Vehicle Hotline is a good resource. One attendee asked about an old car covered in mold at 107th and 17th, and Kennamer noted that “I will tag it tomorrow, and Monday it goes to car jail!”
- Q: Following up on the earlier question about gang activity tags, I’ve also seen some x’d out, and am wondering if it’s related to some of the recent violence here. The tags appear to be for some pretty serious gangs … A from Kennamer: The Latino gang violence has been responsible for several homicides, probably not targeted, and not sophisticated enough to track people, but crossing tags out is big deal in that culture. Audience comment: Be sure if you paint over graffiti that you cover it completely, because if a gang symbol is just crossed out, that can cause major problems because it’s seen as a sign of disrespect and there may be retaliation. Kennamer: There is now funding for a sergeant and a detective for a gang unit, these will be good positions, there are 700 of us and a lot of us will apply for that job.
- As the meeting ended, one attendee talked to the officers about a “blue house on 20th” that Kennamer confirmed is a trouble spot well-known to police, which has involved removing a camper. Kennamer noted that the Citizens Justice Project has been a good resource, really shortens the process (3 mo instead of 7 mo). We can’t impound a camper because it’s not a vehicle, has to be picked up.
- Tuesday April 23, at 7 pm: Neighborhood Blockwatch meeting at the White Center Library
- Thursday May 2, at 7 pm: North Highline Unincorporated Area Council (NHUAC) monthly meeting at the North Highline Fire Station, 1243 SW 112th St, in White Center.
- Thursday June 6, at 7 pm: NHUAC monthly meeting at the Fire Station (no NHUAC meetings in July and August)