White Center's crime troubles cross Seattle's border

In the early 1990s, when rival gangs were having gunfights in White Center, the King County Sheriff's Office assembled a team of deputies and detectives to aggressively go after gang leaders and make arrests.

The gangs disappeared only to re-emerge a few months later — and a few miles to the north — inside Seattle city limits.

The Seattle Police Department confronted the problem with similar tactics ... and the gangs moved back to White Center. It was a Sheriff's Office concern all over again.

As downtrodden White Center is pumped with millions of public and private dollars in an attempt to revitalize it, the two police agencies that patrol the high-crime area are intensifying discussions about their unique jurisdictional situation. The heart of White Center is the commercial district surrounding 16th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Roxbury Street, the arterial that separates King County and Seattle.

While White Center falls technically within unincorporated King County, its crime does not stop neatly at the border, but rather extends into the jurisdiction of Seattle Police. And both departments are beginning to work more closely together to reduce crime — rather than just displace it.

"The question we're asking now," says King County Sheriff's Maj. Scott Somers, "Is there a better way for long-term support and relief to the community? Not just chasing the problems back and forth?"

Since April, there have been at least six shootings in the White Center area. The most recent was Oct. 18, when a man was killed inside his truck while waiting at a stoplight in the commercial district.

Drug-related assaults, robberies, thefts and prostitution occur daily, and gangsters, addicts and homeless people loiter on streets and at bus stops. The commercial area has a frontier feel, with wide-open streets and shops protected by metal bars, gates and surveillance cameras. One local tavern celebrates happy hour at 9 a.m.

"When I walk, I just keep my eyes straight ahead and mind my own business," says Mark Scales, 56, an employee at a chocolate and sweets shop on 16th Avenue Southwest. "We've learned to watch out for each other around here."

Despite their proximity, the two police departments don't even share radio frequencies for the White Center area. Officers on one side of Roxbury often don't know what's happening on the other side, just a few blocks away.

Sheriff's Sgt. John Urquhart says it's inherently difficult for agencies with separate budgets and staffs to share crime information and coordinate resources.

For example, Seattle police might obtain information that a group of crack peddlers is living in a house on the Seattle side of Roxbury but selling drugs all day on the county side. With each department subject to chains of command, how do Seattle Police best notify deputies in King County? Which department should take the lead? Whose problem is it?

For residents affected by such drug dealing — or any other criminal activity — those jurisdictional questions don't matter. They just want the crime to be gone.

Residents complain that when they call 911, one of the first questions dispatchers ask is which side of Roxbury they're dialing from.

Only on specific occasions has one agency made an arrest on the other side, says Seattle Police Lt. Mike Washburn, stationed in the Southwest Precinct a few miles north of White Center. "It's understandable," Washburn says. "Seattle doesn't want to pay me to do police work in the county, and vice versa."

Somers, with King County, says, "It's sort of like we are at our own house. We focus on our yard, paint our house. We might not be as aware of or concerned with what's going on with the neighbors."

But that's changing, both departments pledge.

In March, Seattle opened the new Southwest Precinct. Precinct commander Capt. Jim Pryor said one of his priorities is cleaning up crime coming from White Center and that both Seattle and King County are adopting a "soft border" approach to chasing crime back and forth across Roxbury.

The Sheriff's Office is considering granting Seattle Police officers, who are more abundant in numbers, misdemeanor-arrest power in unincorporated King County.

This summer, the two departments worked together to gather evidence for an undercover drug operation that resulted in 37 arrests. Street sales of crack have slowed considerably, police and residents say.

Both departments are making connections with young people at schools and also are awaiting word on a possible $175,000 federal "Weed and Seed" grant application, which would give money to law enforcement and neighborhood groups for a variety of programs and services, from streetlights to counseling and youth outreach.

Some community organizers want more. At recent meetings, they have demanded foot and bicycle patrols from SPD, and a stronger storefront presence, especially at night, from the Sheriff's Office.

Some money from the Annie E. Casey Foundation trickled down to a community seminar on organizing block watches.

A local boys club sponsored a workshop for the community's non-English-speaking population — at least 40 languages are spoken in White Center — on how to dial 911.

Police say one of the most important things is battling the fear of crime, not just crime itself. They say it's something police can't do by themselves.

"Long-term health and quality of life is not going to be enhanced by reactive police work, by reactive community members," Somers says. "It's going to be people who quietly roll up their sleeves and take ownership, show that they care, a little bit each day."

Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or href="mailto:mko@seattletimes.com">mko@seattletimes.com