Shooting deaths and injuries spiked dramatically in the first nine months of the year in King County — including 58 homicides and 198 firearm injuries — and prosecutors say uncertainty and anxiety over the pandemic and other social strife are likely contributing to the violence.
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (PAO) has been collecting shooting data primarily from eight police agencies since 2017 for its Shots Fired project and recently released its third-quarter report for 2020 documenting the rise in gun violence.
“This reaffirms our gut instinct that there’s been a tremendous spike in violence,” Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said of the Shots Fired report.
While the number of shooting incidents in King County rose only 15% between January and September compared with the three-year average for the same nine-month period, the number of victims who were fatally shot jumped 58% and victims who were injured but survived a shooting rose 34%, according to the PAO.
“It’s been a bad year. I’d temper that by saying it’s been a bad year everywhere,” said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Dan Carew, who with Senior Deputy Prosecutor Karissa Taylor has spearheaded the project since its inception. “I don’t think anyone has a good explanation other than the pandemic-related economic and health stresses” that have impacted communities across the country.
The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice obtained data from 27 U.S. cities with populations greater than 250,000 people, including Seattle, and determined homicides were 53% higher and aggravated assaults were 14% higher in summer 2020 compared with summer 2019, according to the commission’s latest report issued Sept. 26.
Through the end of September, there were 81 homicides committed in King County, with an additional seven homicides committed as of Oct. 19, for a year-to-date total of 88, according to a Seattle Times database compiled with information from police, prosecutors and the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
By comparison, there were 78 homicides in 2019; 78 in 2018; 74 in 2017; and 66 in 2016, according to The Times’ data. Roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of homicide victims are fatally shot each year, the data shows.
Of the 81 homicide victims killed between January and September, 58 of them died by gunfire, said Carew. An additional 198 people were shot but survived during that period, with a total of 780 shooting incidents investigated by the county’s law enforcement agencies. The PAO does not track suicides committed with firearms or officer-involved shootings.
“Last year in our data, we had 49 firearm homicides. We hit 50 in August,” said Carew, noting that in 2019, there were 255 people, including those who died, who had been shot, a number King County surpassed by one as of the end of September.
He said reports from a number of smaller agencies that have recently begun sharing shooting data with prosecutors could only account for a very small portion of the increase.
The eight law enforcement agencies that provide the bulk of shooting data to the PAO are the King County Sheriff’s Office and Seattle, Tukwila, Renton, Kent, Auburn, Federal Way and Des Moines police departments. Together, those eight agencies account for 79% of the county’s population and respond to most of the county’s shooting incidents, which includes shootings that result in death, injury or property damage as well as those in which police recover shell casings or other evidence of a shooting.
This July, September and August — in that order — are now the top three months with the most shooting incidents of any month since the PAO started collecting the data in 2017, Carew said. So far this year, 56% of shooting incidents and 54% of shooting victims were reported by police outside of Seattle, which is down slightly compared with the three-year average between 2017 and 2019.
Interim Seattle police Chief Adrian Diaz said last week Seattle police officers have recovered 2,400 shell casings and 820 firearms so far this year and the department is on pace to exceed 1,000 guns taken off the streets. Shootings, he said at an Oct. 19 news conference, are now at the highest level seen in 11 years and homicides are on the rise.
In Seattle alone, there have been 43 homicides so far this year, nearly 49% of the county total, according to The Times’ data.
One of the ways the PAO measures violence in the community is by the number of police call-outs for a prosecutor assigned to the office’s Most Dangerous Offender Program, known as MDOP, Satterberg said. Ten senior deputy prosecutors assigned to MDOP take turns responding to every homicide committed in the county but they are also sometimes called out for violent assaults that could lead to a victim’s death.
Typically, MDOP attorneys are called to crime scenes 70 to 80 times a year, Satterberg said. Last year, they responded to 90 crime scenes and so far this year, they’ve been called out 123 times, he said.
Satterberg also noted the spike seen in domestic violence: There have been 16 domestic-violence homicides committed in the county so far this year, compared with seven in 2019 and seven in 2018.
In 2019, the PAO filed 1,183 felony charges, including homicides and assaults, with a domestic-violence component; the PAO is on pace to surpass that number, with 1,001 felony domestic-violence cases filed as of the end of September, according to information provided by PAO spokesperson Casey McNerthney.
Though there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in residential burglaries, animal cruelty cases have increased, as have the number of third-degree assault cases, which are assaults committed against police officers, firefighters and medics, health care workers and transit operators while they are performing their duties, according to information provided by McNerthney.
Citing research by former prison psychiatrist James Gilligan in his 1997 book, “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic,” Satterberg said Gilligan describes violence as an attempt to replace shame with pride. When a person uses violence to respond to an insult or to being shamed, using violence provides a sense of pride because that person has retaken control, Satterberg said.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Satterberg said he didn’t know what to expect crimewise, but thought with people staying home and isolating more, that there would be fewer interactions that could lead to violent conflicts.
“The increase in violence, looking back now is not surprising given the stressors of this year,” he said. “What I think is happening in 2020 is all the conditions have amplified despair and anxiety and uncertainty and fed the conditions that lead to violence as a response to shame. That’s the best reason I can think of.”