Since early 2017, the three-member Criminal Strategies Unit in the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office has collected data on shootings investigated by eight police departments and hopes to expand the project to include data from all police departments in the county next year.

Share story

How many people get shot in King County every year?

It was a simple question no one could answer until a couple of deputy prosecutors and a data analyst spent two years scrutinizing shooting incidents – those that resulted in death or injury, as well as those that didn’t.

The data, gathered from eight of the county’s 40 law-enforcement agencies, confirmed what police and community-service agencies working with youth and families already intuitively knew: 67 percent of this year’s firearm homicides and 58 percent of non-fatal shootings occurred south of Seattle city limits.

The county is using the data to advance an emerging perspective on gun violence: that people shooting one another is as much a threat to public health as it is a problem for law enforcement. They are viewing gun violence through a public-health lens and, for the first time, analyzing the relationships between victims, witnesses and perpetrators of gun violence the same way an epidemiologist studies the spread of contagious disease. It’s a philosophy that’s gained traction in King County and across the country.

The goal of this approach is to find ways to intervene in the lives of the most vulnerable individuals before bullets start flying and prevent future violence, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Karissa Taylor, who along with Senior Deputy Prosecutor Dan Carew and Data Analyst Rafael Serrano make up the Crime Strategies Unit spearheading the gun-data deep dive.

What those interventions will look like, especially for victims or witnesses to gun violence, remains to be seen — but they won’t come from the prosecutor’s office, Taylor said. Programs to prevent gun violence must be developed by community providers and public-health officials, she said. The data give them a starting point.

“When we started, there was no data, no sharing of information, everything was siloed,” Taylor said, noting the eight police departments involved in the prosecutor’s Shots Fired Project, which began in January 2017, each had different report-management systems for tracking gun violence, and even had different definitions of what constituted a shooting.

A national movement to view gun violence as a preventable, public-health issue has been gathering momentum over the past decade — and gained social-media steam in recent weeks after the National Rifle Association told doctors to “stay in their lane” rather than “opine on firearm policy,” The Washington Post reported. The medical community responded, posting graphic photos and descriptions of their experiences treating gunshot victims, with #ThisIsMyLane garnering thousands of tweets and followers since going viral in early November.

Executive Dow Constantine signed an executive order in early 2013 directing the public-health department to “develop innovative, data-driven local strategies for preventing gun violence” in King County.

“Gun violence is a public safety crisis. It is also a public-health crisis. Locally, we can approach gun violence as a preventable public-health problem,” Constantine said in his 2013 State of the County address. “State and federal law preempt our ability to regulate firearms, but that should not stop us from thinking innovatively about what we can do within our own authority.”

In 2015, University of Washington researchers published what is believed to be one of the first studies of its kind in the Annals of Internal Medicine, focused on the 680 people admitted to Washington hospitals with gunshot injuries in 2006-2007.

“We found that these patients were at heightened risk for subsequent firearm-related violent victimization or crime perpetration. In addition, among hospitalized patients, prior criminality had a stronger association with subsequent firearm- or violence-related arrest than did a prior diagnosis of mental illness,” the researchers found.

Eighty-three national medical, public-health and research organizations signed letters in April urging Congress to provide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with $50 million to fund public-health research into preventing firearm-related injuries and deaths, according to the American Public Health Association. But according to The Washington Post, Congress hasn’t substantially funded gun-violence research since 1996, when it passed the Dickey Amendment, which restricted funding of research that supported “gun control.”

The Post reported that the amendment, backed by the NRA, was enacted over concerns from gun-rights groups that doctors would try to push anti-gun agendas — just as the NRA accused doctors of doing last month.

The Metropolitan King County Council recently approved $552,000 in funding to continue the prosecutor’s Shots Fired Project in 2019-2020 after a federal grant that funded the first two years of the project expires at the end of the month. It’s not as much as prosecutors asked for and will see the Crime Strategies Unit reduced from three members to two — a deputy prosecutor and a data analyst, said Leesa Manion, chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

“It feels like our work is at a really important place. We believe in our data and know where the data is pointing us,” she said.

According to Taylor, a Public Health study found that 94 percent of all gun homicides between 2001 and 2012 were investigated by King County sheriff’s detectives or by police in six cities: Seattle, Renton, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn and Federal Way.

Those seven agencies are all involved in the Shots Fired Project, and Des Moines was added due to its proximity to the other participating South King County communities, she said. Combined, the eight jurisdictions account for nearly 79 percent of the county’s population, based on a 2018 estimate by the state Office of Financial Management, Taylor said.

She hopes to begin collecting data from all 40 police agencies in King County next year.

Carew said the team also wants to expand the kind of data they collect.

“We want to start collecting data on … where did the gun come from. Was it stolen?” he said. “Now we have a foundation to start asking those next-level questions.”

• • •

Focus on witnesses and the injured

The shooting data the Crime Strategies Unit now collects is split into four categories: homicide; injury; property damage; and all other confirmed shootings that don’t fit into the first three categories. Suicides and officer-involved shootings are not included in the data.

As of Nov. 15, 87 percent of this year’s shooting victims – homicides and assaults – have been male and 40 percent are people under age 25. From the beginning of the year to mid-November, the eight police agencies have responded to 699 shooting incidents, some of them with multiple victims, including 43 homicide victims and 163 assault victims. As of Nov. 15, 2017, the same police departments had responded to 832 shooting incidents, with 44 people killed and 167 injured.

Taylor and Carew have focused a lot of attention on non-fatal shooting victims and witnesses to multiple shootings, since research shows both groups are at a far greater risk of being shot, killed with a firearm or arrested for a firearm-related offense.

Perhaps the most compelling part of their research revolves around social-network analyses — mapping relationships between individuals and figuring out who knows whom. By knowing who is at a shooting, in a car where police find a gun, or arrested with someone involved in a shooting, Taylor and Carew can determine who is at greater risk of becoming a future victim or suspect.

The next step in their work will be figuring out how to use the data to prevent gun violence.  They’ve convened a steering committee, which meets monthly and includes officials from a variety of  agencies already working in communities impacted by gun violence. They’re discussing how to refer people to existing programs and expand capacity to attempt to intervene in the lives of those deemed at the greatest risk of perpetrating or being exposed to gun violence.

Taylor emphasized that any response to the data has to come from the community and public, and the hope is to be able to refer those most at risk of future firearms violence to community-based providers before they become criminally involved.

• • •

Contagion theory

“Your relationships influence your behavior,” Taylor explained. And like smoking or using drugs, carrying and firing guns becomes socially normalized. “The closer you are to a gunshot victim, the greater your chances of being a gunshot victim yourself.”

It’s the contagion theory of gun violence.

Duane Tyson Jr., 19, was fatally shot in the chest outside a Kent apartment complex in January, just seven months after he and two friends were charged with unlawful possession of a firearm in June 2017, court records show.

In the time between Tyson’s arrest and his death, he witnessed a friend get shot in Kent, and his 20-year-old sister was shot in the head during a gunfight between the occupants of two cars in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. His friend survived. His sister, Che’Reonna Thomas, did not.

Elizabeth Juarez was twice contacted by Burien police in 2017 in the company of armed gang members, including one man who was later charged with murder for an April 2017 shooting in Federal Way, according to sheriff’s records. And Eveona Cortez was present but asleep when a woman was fatally shot in June 2017, and she later witnessed a non-fatal shooting, the records say.

At 13, Juarez became the county’s youngest homicide victim so far this year when she was gunned down alongside Cortez, 19, at the Alturas @ Burien apartment complex in March.

No arrests have been made in connection with the deaths of Tyson, Thomas, Juarez or Cortez.

“These past months have been really, really hard. There’s like a void now,” Mary Juarez, the eldest of five girls, said of the shooting death of her younger sister Elizabeth. “I guess we started realizing she was going down the wrong path when she started putting her friends before her family.”

After Elizabeth was busted for spray-painting gang graffiti, and then later when she was caught with marijuana at school, the family tried to get her into a boot camp or program for at-risk youth, but they didn’t get much support from police or school officials because Elizabeth hadn’t committed a serious crime, Mary Juarez said. She and her parents would have welcomed help intervening in Elizabeth’s life.

“I guess they didn’t see it as that big of a deal,” Mary Juarez said. “I feel if they’d have helped her, she would still be here.”

She had no idea her little sister was hanging around people with guns.

• • •

Halting the risk

“The idea violence is transmitted through social networks is very similar to epidemiology, and it just makes sense that the risk of violence can look similar to something contagious,” said Karyn Brownson, the community safety manager in the violence- and injury-prevention unit at Public Health – Seattle & King County.

Brownson’s unit mostly focuses on safe gun storage, which is shown to minimize gun thefts, slow the supply of black-market firearms and reduce the number of accidental injuries to children and suicides, especially among adolescents.

Her unit is also working with a research assistant studying risk factors for criminals who use a gun versus those who don’t.

The research has so far shown that people who have experienced childhood trauma, those who drop out of middle school, and people who have been previously shot are all more likely to use a gun in a future crime, Brownson said.

“The better we understand the problem, the better we’re able to solve it,” she said.

Sean Goode, the executive director of Choose 180, works with young people who commit “gateway crimes” like theft, property damage and being a minor in possession of alcohol. The nonprofit has diverted more than 2,000 youths from the criminal justice system since 2011.

He attended a community meeting in July about the firearms data being collected by the prosecutor’s office and said community-service agencies working with families now need to leverage the data to help young people feel secure in the communities where they live.

“The question is not how do you get a kid to put down a gun, but how do you make a community where young people feel safe enough that a gun is viewed as dangerous and not helpful,” said Goode. “How do we make sure there are enough protective factors in their lives (so they aren’t) seeking out protection for themselves?”