Three months into the year, violent crime in Seattle has already claimed 13 lives, accounting for half of the 26 homicides committed in King County in the first quarter of 2022.
That sad tally has broken a six-year-old record, when 12 of the 23 homicides committed countywide happened within Seattle city limits during the first quarter of 2016.
Four of this year’s killings in Seattle were committed in a single week, from March 17 to 24. Ten of this year’s homicide victims died from gunshot wounds and all were males, although not all have been identified.
“We’re not seeing it slow down at all,” Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette, commander of SPD’s Criminal Investigations Bureau, said in a Thursday phone interview.
“We haven’t even gotten to summer yet. So yeah, we’re concerned,” added Lt. Jason Verhoff, who leads the department’s homicide unit and was on the call with Nollette. “Historically, we always see an uptick in violent crime in summer months so we’ve come to expect that.”
Police departments across the country reported spikes in violent crime during the pandemic — and Seattle was no exception. Though homicides are only one measure of violent crime, 2020 ended with 53 people dead by violence in the city, 20 more than in 2019. Last year, Seattle police investigated 41 homicides.
In King County, there was a total of 73 homicides in 2019, 116 in 2020 and 110 in 2021.
Those numbers are based on data tracking homicides in King County since 2016, compiled by The Seattle Times with information from police, prosecutors and the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
But unlike this year, homicides committed in Seattle in the first quarters of 2019, 2020 and 2021 were all in the single digits — eight, nine and eight, respectively. Before that, there were two homicides committed in the city between January and March 2017 and seven during the same period in 2018.
According to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, senior deputy prosecutors assigned to the Most Dangerous Offender Program have been called out to homicide or violent assault scenes 40 times in the first quarter of 2022, as of Wednesday. That’s more than double the number of callouts in the first quarters of every year since 2016.
The dangerous offender program was established in 1994 and since then, senior deputy prosecutors have responded to every homicide and potential homicide scene in King County, Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for the office, said in an email.
Though prosecutors are separate from police investigators, their presence at a crime scene allows them to assist detectives with writing warrants, noting what kinds of forensic testing may be helpful, and enabling them to have a deeper understanding of cases they will eventually handle in court, he wrote.
Last year’s 140 MDOP callouts were down slightly from 2020, when prosecutors were summoned to 146 crime scenes. There were 90 callouts in 2019; 100 in 2018; 89 in 2017; and 68 in 2016.
The prosecutor’s office also tracks shootings in the county through its Shots Fired Project and releases quarterly data of shootings that result in death, injury or property damage, as well as those that don’t but where there is physical evidence, like shell casings, that a shooting occurred. The Shots Fired data for the first quarter of 2022 is expected to be released in coming weeks and will include victim breakdowns for age, sex and race.
Last year, 88 people were fatally shot and 372 were wounded by gunfire in King County, surpassing 2020’s record high of 69 firearm-related homicides and 268 shooting injuries that were largely attributed to the stressors of the pandemic.
Though it’s impossible to predict how this year might end, Nollette said reports of shots fired are at an all-time high in Seattle.
The ongoing violence has made for heavy caseloads across the homicide unit, which is down 14% in terms of staffing and whose detectives are also responsible for investigating aggravated assaults, assaults on police officers and felony harassment cases, according to Nollette and Verhoff.
This year, as in recent years, “the single biggest increase is in homicides with a homeless nexus,” where the victim, suspect, or both are experiencing homelessness, or a killing occurs in a homeless encampment, Nollette said.
Those cases account for an estimated 40% of the homicide unit’s case load — and that nexus was evident in three of the four homicides committed during that single week in March, she said.
“When I say ‘homeless,’ it’s a misnomer — it’s really narcotics activity, mental health issues and lawlessness,” said Nollette. “We’re seeing the violence centered on illegal encampments, where there’s a general sense of lawlessness that concentrates bad actors and concentrates narcotics in one area.”