Eighty-eight people were fatally shot and 372 were wounded by gunfire in King County last year, surpassing 2020’s record high of 69 firearm-related homicides and 268 shooting injuries that were largely attributed to the stressors of the pandemic.
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office on Monday released the 2021 year-end report for its Shots Fired Project, which counts fatal and injury shootings, shootings that result in property damage and those that don’t but can be confirmed through evidence such as shell casings. Law enforcement agencies across the county reported 1,405 shots-fired incidents in 2021, up from 1,025 in 2020 and 858 the year before.
While gun violence has spiked in cities and even rural communities across the country, “it’s a uniquely American experience in response to the pandemic” that hasn’t been shared by other countries, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said.
The Shots Fired Project tracks data from 20 police agencies across King County, but a majority of the shootings are reported by eight of them that account for roughly 79% of the county’s population. They are the Seattle, Tukwila, Renton, Kent, Auburn, Federal Way and Des Moines police departments and the King County Sheriff’s Office, which provides policing services to unincorporated King County and 16 contract cities.
The Shots Fired data does not include self-inflicted fatal shootings, self-inflicted gunshot injuries or shootings in which an officer was involved.
According to the Shots Fired report, 62% of shooting incidents last year happened outside of the Seattle city limits, up slightly from the four-year average of 60% from 2017-20. All shootings were up 54%; shooting fatalities were up 54%; and the number of nonfatal shooting victims was up 82% compared with the four-year average. There were 19 more gun-related homicides and 104 more nonfatal shooting victims last year compared with 2020.
Of the 460 gunshot victims, 85% were male, 28% were between the ages of 18 and 24, and 81% were people of color, the report says. As in previous years, 48% of victims of both fatal and nonfatal shootings were Black, and 27% of them were males between 18 and 24, the report says.
By contrast. Black people make up about 7% of King County’s population.
While the number of juvenile shooters and victims has declined slightly, the 2021 data does show the highest increase was in victims ages 30 to 39 and an increase in the number of female victims, and perpetrators, of gun violence, Satterberg said.
There is a subset of shootings related to the street-level drug trade but prosecutors are seeing more cases of gun violence spawned by road rage and reckless discharges, he said.
“When we started the Shots Fired project in 2016 and were asking the major police departments around the county to send us daily reports of anything involving guns, whether it’s a homicide or a wounding or a car or a street sign being shot up, I didn’t understand the entire value that might bring,” Satterberg said. “We became the central repository of this data because there was nobody else counting these cases and now it’s given us a baseline to really assess the health of King County. We would have no other way to see the extraordinary impact of the two pandemic years on gun violence but for the work of the Shots Fired team.”
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said the pandemic has left people to increasingly struggle with depression, anxiety, anger and addiction at a time when hospitals and mental health and addiction-service providers are already operating above capacity.
“We’re living in times of turmoil, and the worst part about it in my view is that as we’re seeing societal problems stack up, the tools we have to solve those problems are being diminished at the same time. And that creates a really bad dynamic,” he said. “Government services in general are stretched super thin because of the compounding crises that we’re seeing. So that dynamic is what I’m seeing overall pushing violence up.”
Though incidents of gun violence have risen dramatically over the past two years, the number of cases police refer to prosecutors for a charging decision has dropped, said Satterberg, attributing the decline to police staffing issues.
Police and prosecutors only respond once someone has already been shot, but the data collected by the Shots Fired Project does help focus resources on reducing gun violence, Satterberg said. The project analyzes social networks since it’s well-known that victims, witnesses and perpetrators of gun violence are disproportionately at risk of becoming victims and perpetrators in the future.
Information obtained by police about individuals most at risk of gun violence is passed on to community groups like CHOOSE 180 and the YMCA, which have gun violence-prevention programs for youth and young adults.
Last summer, Seattle and King County launched a $3.5 million pilot project — the Regional Peacekeepers Collective — and other gun prevention strategies designed to engage with young people considered most likely to become victims or perpetrators of gun violence. Young people are referred to the program by officials at Harborview Medical Center or the prosecutor’s office, and by outreach workers with community-based organizations like CHOOSE 180 and Community Passageways.
“I think this needs to be a sustained, multidecade effort,” Satterberg said of supporting community-based programs that can teach young people to walk away from fights and shrug off petty insults instead of escalating them with guns.
“You can’t predict all of it but you can predict some of it,” especially when it comes to retaliatory shootings, he said, and the data helps point to individuals, neighborhoods and even blocks where shootings are concentrated and then directs work with community members before a potential outbreak of gun violence occurs.
“These are extraordinarily disturbing numbers,” Satterberg said. “There’s nothing to celebrate here, but it does help inform smart strategies to reduce gun violence.”