Like hundreds of other Seattle parents, I dropped everything after Ingraham High School went into lockdown the morning of Nov. 8 following a shooting at the school.
I am one of the lucky ones: I knew my son was safe. I knew he had been far away from the shooting. I knew I would see him soon by the table for kids with last names A-B.
I waited at the reunification site with hundreds of other people. We were united by the deep desire to see our kids again. It didn’t matter what language we speak at home, whether we were sending prayers to saints or lucky stars, whether we were wearing business suits or flannel pajamas or uniforms. Because we all had done the same thing: dropped everything to come gather our children. We had everything in common in that moment.
There have been 1,105 shootings at K-12 schools in the United States since the start of 2013—essentially since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The numbers are escalating: Almost 80% of those have been in the past five years. Nearly a quarter of the shootings at K-12 schools since the start of 2013 have happened this year.
We don’t have to have been the most severely impacted to say enough is enough.
Standing at the reunification site, I didn’t know these statistics. But since Tuesday I have been thinking: If 1,105 shootings at K-12 schools since 2013 means there have been 1,105 reunification sites, then there are hundreds of thousands of people like me, who stood in a crowd knowing my kid was coming home with me.
Now add in the grandparents, the neighbors, the cousins, the family friends, the coworkers who were waiting for word from the person at the reunification site. That’s hundreds of thousands who have been touched by gun violence at schools, but can say “we were lucky.”
It’s time for us to make the most of our fortune. We don’t have to have been the most severely impacted to say enough is enough. We don’t have to leave it to the people who have suffered the unthinkable loss of a family member to pressure our elected officials to find the political will to reduce gun violence in schools. We need to stop minimizing, stop saying “it could have been worse, stop accepting this as the norm. Gun violence at schools has impacted far too many lives.
Locally, we could start by using our voices to bolster efforts to repeal a state law that prevents cities like Seattle from passing local gun regulations—something Mayor Bruce Harrell has said he supports. Last year, legislators managed to pass a suite of statewide gun safety bills despite opposition from the powerful gun lobby, include a ban on untraceable “ghost guns” and a ban on high-capacity magazines.
We—the “lucky ones”— must keep pushing. Drop everything. Speak out. Use your second chance.
Earlier this year, with the city facing a budget gap of more than $140 million, Mayor Bruce Harrell asked all city departments to come up with potential budget cuts ranging from 3 to 6 percent. His proposed 2023 budget implements some of those cuts, reducing the budgets for the Human Services Department, the Office of Labor Standards, the Department of Neighborhoods, and the Office of Emergency Management, among others.
But one department remains sacrosanct: The Seattle Police Department, whose budget is set to swell substantially despite a well-documented glut of vacant, but still funded, positions. The bulk of that growth will come from re-absorbing city’s parking enforcement officers (moved to the Seattle Department of Transportation last year as part of an effort to civilianize some police jobs) into the department.“The methodology of the Journal of Urban Health study is flawed because the assessment of ShotSpotter’s efficacy was measured using data from across entire counties, when ShotSpotter coverage areas typically only cover a small part of counties. ShotSpotter does not detect and report incidents of gunfire outside of the coverage area where they are deployed. Therefore, the system would not alert officers to instances of gunfire in the majority of the geographic areas that were used to measure ShotSpotter’s impact.”
In addition, SPD will use $16 million in paper savings achieved by not funding some vacant positions to pay for a wide array of new investments, including a new acoustic gunfire detection system to “provide the police department with evidence collection capabilities for use in homicide investigations or other incidents involving firearms,” according to the budget. Setting up the system would cost the city $2 million over the next two years. But the plan will face opposition from many on the city council, who argue that the system will do little to increase prosecutions or decrease gun violence in Seattle.
Gunfire detection systems, typically shorthanded as “Shotspotter” for the name of the company that dominates the market, consist of an array of highly sensitive microphones and sensors mounted on street lights or other elevated structures throughout an area,. These sensors, which are sometimes augmented with cameras, detect and determine the approximate location of outdoor sounds that resemble gunfire and and alert human “acoustic experts” who listen to the sounds and filter out false alarms like fireworks and backfiring vehicles. These experts then alert police, who can be dispatched to the scene.
“This technology allows our evidence gatherers to determine where the shots are fired and … go right to where it was; perhaps there would be a car speeding away,” Harrell said. “Cities across the country have used this technology as an evidence gathering tool, not a violence prevention tool. And it’s been effective.”
If that argument sounds familiar, that’s because some Seattle officials have been making it for more than a decade. Both Harrell and former mayor Mike McGinn presented a virtually identical case for Shotspotter in 2012 when they pushed, unsuccessfully, for the city to fund a gunfire locator system.
But ample real-world evidence, then and now, shows that gunfire detection systems have little impact on gun violence investigations and do not reduce gun-related crime. A large study published last year in the Journal of Urban Health, for example, looked at gun homicides, murder arrests, and weapons arrests in 68 large, metropolitan counties that used Shotspotter between 1999 and 2016. The system, the study concluded, had “no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes.” The ShotSpotter spokesperson said this study was flawed because it measured data across entire counties, rather than just the areas where ShotSpotter was deployed. “Therefore, the system would not alert officers to instances of gunfire in the majority of the geographic areas that were used to measure ShotSpotter’s impact.”
A 2016 report from the City Auditor’s Office backed up this finding, noting that “there has been little research to date on the efficacy of acoustic gunshot locator systems for reducing gun crime. … Moreover, although a few available studies have found that acoustic gunshot locator systems can result in slightly faster response times by police, there is no evidence that these small gains in police response times have had a deterrent effect or have led to increased apprehension of offenders.”
That report was addressed to then-city council public safety committee chair Tim Burgess (now Harrell’s chief public safety advisor), who sought funding for Shotspotter over multiple budget cycles.
In Chicago, a review of Shotspotter deployment by the city’s Office of the Inspector General found that police found evidence of a gun-related crime in fewer than one out of every 10 dispatches based on a Shotspotter alert. According to Shotspotter, that report was flawed because it isn’t always possible to gather evidence. “Linking an alert with evidence of a shooting can be challenging as some guns do not eject casings and those that do can eject haphazardly. In addition, a high number of alerts happen late at night making evidence collection difficult as well as engaging witnesses,” they added.
Those arguments, however, apply equally to any gunfire-related dispatch; the issue the Chicago report was raising was the use of Shotspotter to determine how police resources are directed. Moreover, the “no-casings” argument is dubious; the only kind of commonly purchased guns that do not release casings are revolvers, which—according to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—make up just 9 percent of US guns sales.
Still, Shotspotter is still in use in Chicago and many other cities—a clear sign, the spokesperson said, that it’s working. “The Chicago Police Department consistently describes ShotSpotter as an important part of their operations,” the spokesperson said.
Other studies have shown that Shotspotter can have unintended consequences unrelated to the system’s ability to locate potential gunfire. Critics point to the potential for racially biased policing and an excessive police presence in communities of color. The Chicago report found that in some cases, officers used the mere presence of a gunshot detection system in an area to justify stopping a person on the street—suggesting that police are on heightened alert in the neighborhoods where the system is deployed.
According to ACLU of Washington Technology & Liberty project manager Jennifer Lee, gunfire detection systems “exacerbate disproportionate policing of communities of color and send police disproportionately into neighborhoods that are already overpoliced.”
Notably, Harrell’s budget says he proposed the system in response to requests from “community liaisons”—”mothers who have been directly impacted by gun violence”—to provide “an ‘equal level of service'” in all neighborhoods. “This group made recommendations in favor of the gunfire detection system technology referencing multiple unsolved homicides in Seattle’s Rainier Beach area,” according to Harrell’s budget.
Gunfire detection technology can also “pick up conversations and sounds that are not gunshots … that can be combined with other information to form an intimate picture of people’s lives,” Jennifer Lee, from the ACLU of Washington, said.
The Shotspotter representative said there is no data to suggest that ShotSpotter “puts police on high alert or creates dangerous situations any more than their response to 911 calls. Rather, ShotSpotter equips police officers with more information than they might typically have when arriving to the scene of a gunshot incident, and they arrive at the scene more situationally aware.”
Other potential unintended consequences include a reduction in 911 calls and an increase in active-shooter alerts at schools, which can lead to traumatic lockdowns. In St. Louis, the number of 911 calls declined dramatically after the city installed Shotspotter “without a corresponding decrease in actual gun incidents,” according to a city council analysis. And in Washington D.C., Shotspotter detected 249 possible gun-related incidents near schools during a single year, with the neighborhoods surrounding a small number of schools accounting for a disproportionate number of those alerts.
Councilmember Sara Nelson said it was worth funding Shotspotter even if it only “saved [a single] life by allowing an officer to respond more quickly. I think that if any of us were the loved one of that person, we would be happy that we are spending $1 million on this, because life is precious and priceless.”
Any other gunfire detection system, especially one that includes cameras, would probably to undergo mandatory review under the city’s surveillance ordinance, which lays out a lengthy approval process for any new surveillance technology. By seeking $1 million for the technology next year, the ACLU’s Lee says, Harrell is tying up money that could be spent on other, proven gun-violence mitigation programs. “The first step from the mayor’s office should have been to publicly review the technology, draft a surveillance impact report, solicit comments, and seek council approval to see if a budget allocation would even be appropriate,” Lee said. “That money will just sit there in the budget and not be used for actually effective things that have an actual impact on violence.”
Lee said the ACLU is concerned, among other issues, with the potential chilling effect produced by the presence of dozens or hundreds of microphones, and potentially cameras, in Seattle neighborhoods. Gunfire detection technology can also “pick up conversations and sounds that are not gunshots … that can be combined with other information to form an intimate picture of people’s lives. People might not feel comfortable participating in things like protests, associating with people, going to practicing their religion, freely going to health care clinics, or just gathering in public places.”
In the two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, gun violence in Seattle has both surged and transformed. While the number of gun homicides fell from 2020 to 2021, both the number of people shot and the number of shots fired rose by roughly 40 percent. One of the key drivers of that increase, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz told the city council’s public safety committee last week, was an uptick in shootings at encampments.
Over the past two years, gun violence at encampments across the city escalated dramatically. In January 2020, only 6.5 percent of the city’s shootings took place in encampments; by December 2021, at least a quarter of Seattle’s shootings were in encampments. Police reports about encampment shootings cite drug deals gone wrong, personal disputes or unpaid debts as inciting incidents, but Diaz did not identify any broader reason why violence in encampments is on the rise.
While Seattle’s efforts to reduce gun violence have historically relied on outreach to young people in gangs, City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s committee on housing and homelessness, now argues that the city should think of moving people from encampments to shelters as an essential part of reducing gun violence. “There’s something about unsanctioned encampments—they attract gun violence,” he said. People living in encampments may carry guns to protect themselves, Lewis noted, and people involved in low-level survival crimes often can’t turn to police or courts to resolve disputes.
“When people are inside and having their needs met, we just don’t see the kinds of violence we see when they are dealing with the insecurities of living in an encampment.” —Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis
In an email to PubliCola on Wednesday, Diaz added that he has no plans to redirect his department’s gun violence prevention resources to focus on encampments.
In Lewis’ view, while shelters are not the only solution to rising gun violence, they seem to have helped curtail it. As examples, he pointed to the city’s tiny house villages, run by the Low-Income Housing Institute, and the hotel-based shelters run by JustCARE, a collaboration between counseling, outreach and diversion providers that serves people with serious behavioral health challenges. So far, he said, there have been no shootings at any JustCARE shelter or tiny house villages.
“When people are inside and having their needs met,” Lewis said, “we just don’t see the kinds of violence we see when they are dealing with the insecurities of living in an encampment.”
Although Lewis has championed both tiny houses and JustCARE, he says preserving JustCARE’s funding is more likely to reduce gun violence because the program exclusively serves people who’ve been involved in the criminal justice system. “Generally speaking, JustCARE clients have had opportunities to be a victim and, in some cases, a perpetrator of gun violence,” he said, “and the fact that they have developed a sheltering strategy that can mitigate that is incredibly valuable.”
In Lewis’ view, the council should start viewing JustCARE “more as a jail and violence mitigation program than as a shelter program. We can find a way to remove people who are vulnerable to being victims or perpetrators of violence from the street in a more sustainable way than putting them in jail.” JustCARE’s funding, which includes federal COVID relief dollars, is set to expire in June.
While Diaz agreed that shelters have been relatively safe, he told the council last week that SPD has responded to more calls from social workers who say they have been threatened with guns in the past year. Diaz framed his comments as a response to questions about safety in shelters, but he did not offer any examples of people being threatened inside either shelters or low-income housing. Instead, he pointed to a February 2021 incident in which a man shot at a staff member inside a Catholic Community Services administrative building in the Central District before fatally shooting himself. Continue reading “Councilmember Touts Shelters as Solution to Encampment Shootings”→
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said Monday that the life of Horace Lorenzo Anderson, the 19-year-old who was shot in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone on Saturday night, “might have been saved if not for the circumstances created by hasty legislation” barring police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and other “less lethal weapons” to disperse protesters.
Best made her comments at a press conference Monday afternoon to announce the imminent shutdown of CHOP and the reopening of the East Precinct as a police station. “It is time to restore order and eliminate the violence on Capitol Hill,” Durkan said.
Best accused protesters of creating circumstances that allowed several Black men to be shot and then prevented Seattle Police Department officers, the Fire Department, and EMTs from coming in and delivering care. “I cannot stand by, not another second, and watch another black man or anyone here die in our streets while people aggressively thwart the efforts of the police and other first responders,” Best said.
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The police department has presented no specific evidence to indicate that anyone at the protest was violent against police officers. In fact, both bodycam video released by SPD and the police department’s official timeline of events contradict this claim. According to the timeline, officers showed up at to a staging area on 12th and Cherry, about seven blocks from the shooting, around 2:30 in the morning and entered the area around six minutes later, when they were informed that medics had already taken the victim away. The bodycam footage shows protesters stepping aside for police while screaming that the victim has already been taken to the hospital. I don’t know what else was happening outside the frame, or how much is left out of the timeline. But what the police and mayor have offered so far are assertions, not evidence.
“SPD spent years developing the gold standard of use-of-force policy. Let that work. Allow us to use these [weapons] when absolutely necessary.”—Seattle police chief Carmen Best
And speaking of assertions: Best insisted that none of her statements were political before producing a stack of police reports and waving them in the air while asserting that “there are groups of individuals engaging in shootings, in rape, assaults, burglary, arson, and property destruction.” It’s unclear what was in the reports Best was holding or whether they indeed contained evidence that there were “groups” of people engaging in multiple assaults, rapes, and other crimes. One man was arrested last week in the and charged with sexual assault against a CHOP resident, and another man was arrested during a burglary in White Center for allegedly breaking in to an auto shop in the area and setting a desk on fire.
“This is happening,” Best continued. “We cannot walk away from the truth of what is happening here. This is not about politics and I am not a politician. This isn’t a debate about First Amendment rights—this is about life or death! So we need a plan. The council legislated away officers’ access to less lethal weapons,” Best continued—not mentioning that the legislation barring these weapons is not in effect yet—leaving officers with no options beside “a riot baton or a gun. … SPD spent years developing the gold standard of use-of-force policy. It was done in coordination with the federal monitor, the Department of Justice, and the federal court. Let that work. … Allow us to use these [weapons] when absolutely necessary.”
“The council legislated away officers’ access to less lethal weapons,” Best continued—not mentioning that the legislation barring these weapons is not in effect yet—leaving officers with no options beside “a riot baton or a gun.”
It’s unclear to what extent Durkan, who echoed Best’s narrative that police tried to respond to Saturday’s shooting but were forced to stay outside by a hostile crowd, agrees with her chief that tear gas and pepper spray could have allowed police to save Anderson’s life. Historically, and without exception, when police have attacked protesters in the area with chemical and “less-lethal” weapons, it has resulted in an escalation, not a deescalation, of conflict along with injuries to protesters, some of them grave.
Durkan may be attempting to distance herself from Best and her bellicose statements, but to what end? If she doesn’t fire the chief (and this seems vanishingly unlikely, given the optics of sacking a black female police chief who enjoys support from many Black clergy and other community members), seeming like the more “reasonable” public servant has its own obvious political advantages—including the fact that it allows the mayor to be the “good cop” when proposing a midyear budget later this week that will fail to meet one of the protesters’ chief demands: Defunding the police by 50 percent and reinvesting that money into community programs.