By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
How widespread are gangs in Seattle and what do you need to know about them in order to stay safe?
The lieutenant who leads the Seattle Police Gang Unit, accompanied by one of his detectives, spoke tonight to the West Seattle Block Watch Captains’ Network, and debunked myths as well as answering questions.
According to Lt. Whelan, the gang unit has four goals:
-Prevent violence; “we don’t want people out there shooting at each other.” He mentioned “proactive patrols” all day on the last day of school in Seattle last Thursday (as well as the two days preceding). “Frequently, as school is closing down, these kids decide ‘I’m not going to see this guy again … I’m going to even things up right now’.”
He said that “in our experience especially in the last couple of days (of school), these kids are going to migrate to Alki” so that’s why the Gang Unit focuses there, and to a lesser degree at Golden Gardens Park.
4th of July coverage will start at 2 pm for the Gang Unit. He mentioned there’s a particular gang that has an annual picnic on the 4th of July “and we’d like to make sure they’re aware that we’re aware they’re having a picnic.” He says they get lots of information via the social-media bragging of gang members. They’ll be patrolling parks in multiple precincts and wind up back at Alki “on preventive patrol” around fireworks time. Again, “the whole idea is to keep people from shooting each other.”
Overall, he said, “July’s a very heavy month for us.”
According to the lieutenant, they know everybody out there “who claims to be a gangbanger – and if we don’t know who they are, it’s our job to find somebody who does.” That “takes away all the anonymity that these kids think they have.” They might see an officer and think s/he doesn’t know they’re a gang member – but when the “G-Unit” shows up, everyone on it knows who they are, so “you can see an immediate change … All of a sudden, the tone and temperature of the crowd changes, and a lot of the bad guys leave because the Gang Unit is there.”
Also, he said, when there’s a shooting death involving a gang member, the first question he’ll ask his team, “When and where’s the funeral? We want to be there.” The Gang Unit will patrol the area because otherwise that kind of gathering might be ripe for other violence. “We’ve been very successful to date.” He says it’s not considered intrusive by the family of the person who was killed, because “they want to bury their loved one in peace.”
He also said many types of crimes wind up being investigated by the Gang Unit “because there’s a strong suspicion that gang members were involved.” But it’s difficult to get people to tell what they’ve seen – “maybe a dozen, two dozen witnesses saw the whole thing, but because of gangland policy ‘don’t snitch,’ nobody will talk to us. … We could solve most of the shootings in Seattle in about 24 hours if people will just tell us what they saw. … But we’re out there trying to prevent these crimes from occurring.”
They also have electronic communication with other law-enforcement agencies/officers in an e-mail system called GETEM. It’s been out there for a while – we found this 2008 reference from outside Seattle. And it’s no secret, Lt. Whelan reassured an attendee who asked at that point if anything confidential would be compromised by our coverage of tonight’s meeting.
He mentioned the years when Seattle had its highest murder rate and how it was more or less warfare between particular gangs. That’s not the way it goes now, he said. Now, it’s more an affiliation with a particular neighborhood – even if they don’t live there – than with a particular gang. Some Seattle neighborhoods have gang members claiming affiliation even if they live, for example, in South King County. On the converse: “There are some individuals who claim South End … but these kids move all over. … It’s not just Seattle. These kids aren’t just sitting around on one streetcorner.”
Their criminal enterprises have expanded into prostitution and different types of drugs, he said – “any way to make a buck.” But, “other than that, these guys are not tough guys, necessarily .. they’re not necessariliy the worst guys in the world that I’d encountered … unless they’re in a group, or you get them cornered …”
One thing Seattle doesn’t have right now, Lt. Whelan said, in response to a question: No serious motorcycle-gang problem right now.
Returning to his unit’s summer plans, he mentioned several big events where they will have a presence, including the Bite of Seattle and the Seafair Torchlight Parade next month.
Another attendee asked: The gang members that caused concerns regarding the last day of school – are they actually students? Yes, he said, they are. And when school starts, the Gang Unit will show up and work on prevention/deterrence all over again.
Det. Rob Thomas, who’s been with the unit five years, was introduced. He gave some more-general information about gangs, and what binds them together – their code, their common symbols, etc. The biggest umbrella groups were founded decades ago and have tens of thousands of people involved around the country.
“Seattle gangs are different compared to what you might see in LA,” he said. As Lt. Whelan had mentioned, the alliances tend to be neighborhood vs. neighborhood – Central District vs. South End, for example. The city has about 160 active, distinct gangs, he said, with thousands of members.
A common question came up again – how do you know when graffiti/tagging is gang-related? Most of that type of vandalism is NOT gang related, Det. Johnson said – “most of what you see around the city is from what we call ‘tagger crews’.” Especially the “bubbly letter” type of tagging. He also mentioned SPD’s fulltime graffiti detective. (But regardless of whether you think it’s gang-related or not, do report it – it’s a crime. Take a photo before painting it out. Here’s how to report it – including an online tool that will require a photo.)
Another question: “What’s a gang activity? How do we know what’s a danger to us, and what (is just targeted at other gang members)? Why are they in a gang?”
Det. Johnson said that the latter is complex – “notoriety” is one reason, looking for fame and attention. “That’s definitely a huge draw among all gang members.” Some also are longing for a family – “they have bad home situations (or) come from broken homes.” Or, “there are just some people who like being criminals … those are the more hard-core gang members.” Gang members could start as early as age 12, he said. Asked about the ethnic makeup of gangs, Det. Johnson said they don’t shake out along ethnic lines in Seattle as much as in other areas.
How can you tell whether someone is a gang member? “We see a lot of people who are claiming this stuff, and I can’t prove it – they’re not ‘card-carrying’ members.” said Lt. Whelan. They can’t flat out declare that someone is a gang member but they can certainly say someone said they were.
Are tennis shoes over wires a sign of gang activity or drug activity? Det. Johnson was asked. No, he said, “that’s an urban legend.”
“How can we help you?” Cooperation, and calling attention to suspicious situations, are big, said the detective. But SW Precinct Community Police Team Officer Jon Kiehn also warned against just calling 911 and saying there are people “who look like they are in a gang.” You need to call 911 and describe the activity you think is criminal. A discussion about 911 dispatchers and calltakers ensued, after one attendee said that her neighborhood is trying to help by reporting activity, but “getting the third degree” when they call in.
The questions asked by a dispatcher, it was explained, are intended to elicit information on why you think a crime is taking place. “But if we’re working specifically with you guys regarding specific cases … to get that third degree, you are shutting down members on that Block Watch” who want to give information.
Det. Johnson said he used to be a dispatcher and explains the amount of stresses they go through with a relative handful for the entire city. “Doesn’t excuse rudeness but … they’re really trying to elicit practical information so they can (send police out there).” They have to have grounds for police to speak to possible suspects, not just “something doesn’t seem right.” (One year ago, WSBWCN featured guest speakers on how the 911 call center works and how to maximize a 911 call – read our story here.)
Gang members’ motto tends to be “get rich or die trying,” Lt. Whelan said toward the end. “As they get older and become more violent, it’s only a matter of time before they shoot someone and we catch them – or they’re going to make a lot of people angry at them and get themselves shot, killed, wounded – if they get into prison as adults, first time, 5 to 10 years .. I guarantee you prison never did anybody any good, you’re (leaving) more angry, more violent, trained in the arts of criminal behavior.” But they’re too old to be gangbangers when they come out, “so they just go into an adult career of crime. That’s basically the gang lifestyle, it’s dead end, it’s not going anywhere, we can’t stop it, it’s bigger than us, the main thing we can do in the Seattle Police Department is keep this from being a ‘free-fire zone’.” But they do that work ethically and lawfully, he said. “We can’t stop (gang activity), we can only interdict it.”
And his reminder: Don’t look at the color of skin or the clothes – look at the behavior – in protecting yourself and assessing risk. Don’t be a victim. Don’t look like a victim. Choose when you’re going to go out. “A lot of these kids are stealing phones and jewelry. Don’t walk around with your white earbuds and your phone, which tells everyone that you have an Apple product. These kids will knock you on your butt, hurt you, for a phone that you paid $500-$600 for and they’re going to sell it for $100, and by the time you wake up in the hospital or whatever, that phone’s going to be (overseas).”
FROM THE CAPTAIN: Precinct commander Capt. Steve Wilske mentioned two officers are now on bikes and focused on areas including Roxhill Park (we saw them at the Morgan Junction Community Festival last Saturday) and 10 more are getting equipped with two wheels – in addition to their regular patrol vehicles – shortly. Two officers are now stationed on Alki for Fridays and Saturdays – “with the nice weather, we’re seeing a lot of people on Alki, and we want to keep a handle on that.” Property crimes “trended up a few weeks ago (and) are back down this week,” Capt. Wilske said, so he’s planning some special data collection focused on repeat offenders. Attendees brought up concerns about 35th/Morgan and Roxhill Park.
REMINDERS: WSBWCN co-leader Deb Greer reminded everyone at the start of the meeting that August 5th is Night Out, and if you haven’t already signed up your block, do it now – that’s what you need to do to get permission to close it for a block party that night (provided you’re not on an arterial).
*Co-leader Karen Berge invited attendees to come say hi while WSBWCN is on site at West Seattle Summer Fest July 11-13 (exact times they’ll be there are TBA) and at Delridge Day on August 9th.
*Deb noted that SPD is not having individual Precinct Picnics this year; last year’s “picnic” was combined with Delridge Day, where the Seattle Police Foundation is likely to sponsor ice cream handed out by SPD personnel this year, according to Capt. Wilske.
WSBWCN meets on the fourth Tuesday, 6:30 pm at the Southwest Precinct – but like many community organizations won’t meet again until September.