Ghianna Creer smiled as she ambled around a Safeway parking lot in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood on a recent drizzly Friday evening. She and some of her team members chatted as they blasted music and handed out plates of hot wings and hamburgers.
It seemed like a laid-back night, but the group couldn’t have been more alert.
Creer, 21, was recently hired by the Boys & Girls Club of King County’s Safe Passage program, in which she and her team monitor public safety in Rainier Beach — particularly in the parking lot outside the local Safeway, known for decades as a space where community members often gather and socialize. But after a pair of fatal shootings devastated the neighborhood last year, residents and local business owners have voiced growing concerns about safety there, especially at night and on weekends.
Now, the neighborhood is banding together to look for tangible, on-the-ground options to supplement some of the public-safety and youth programs already in place in Rainier Beach. Because many residents say they feel the uptick in disturbances and fights are a result of a lack of city funding and attention, they’ve stepped up to organize their own community meetings and dialogues with local elected officials.
“We are in a part of the city that has historically been home to communities of color — immigrants, refugees — and oftentimes that just means we don’t have the same political clout or connections to be able to draw attention to our needs down here,” said Hong Chhuor, whose family owns King Donuts in the Safeway shopping plaza. “The community has had to do a lot on its own in terms of taking things into our own hands.”
Grieving the lost
Erin Goodman of the Sodo Business Improvement Area and South Precinct Advisory Council said she lives a few blocks away from the Safeway and often sees people drinking and getting into arguments in the parking lot when she’s running errands or going grocery shopping.
During the height of the pandemic, she said, the crowds were massive, with “hundreds of people” showing up, yearning for a place to socialize.
“That kind of behavior is not necessarily a problem until it is,” Goodman said, referring to the two shootings that killed three men last spring.
Conner Dassa-Holland, 18, was moving his family’s car to a spot in front of their house when he was fatally shot the night of May 10, a couple of blocks away from the parking lot.
Two weeks later, Christopher Wilson Jr., 35, and De’Andre Roberts, 23, were shot and killed in the lot after an argument — which didn’t involve either man — broke out about the founding of a long-running South Seattle street gang, according to charging documents.
At the time, neighbors grieved for the men and searched for ways to increase youth engagement, public safety and local funding for community resources.
Then, in January, three more shots-fired incidents were reported near the parking lot. At least one left two teenagers with injuries, prompting neighbors to again vocalize what they thought needed to be done to increase safety.
A community effort
After the gunfire in January, someone on social media mentioned taking the conversations to Rainier Avenue Radio, a South Seattle community radio station. That’s when station manager Tony Benton’s ears perked up.
Benton, fondly known as Tony B., grew up in the area and knows the Safeway parking lot as a longtime hangout spot. He wanted to provide a public platform for the community to share its concerns — so in February, Rainier Avenue Radio hosted two virtual town halls, bringing together for the first time local business owners, elected officials and neighbors to discuss the future of the parking lot.
“That is one of the most important roles we can play as a radio station in the community,” Benton told The Seattle Times recently. “It was simply just amplifying voices … (on issues) that impact the health and wellness of the community.”
Representatives from businesses that share the Safeway lot, as well as King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay and Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González, made appearances.
Safeway representative Sara Osborne said during the talk the grocery store wants to be a part of the conversations.
“How do we keep people safe but not overpolice? We want community input, because you help us make that balance,” she said.
Since then, Safeway has committed to making several physical changes to the lot — including adding more lamp poles, brighter light bulbs and tire stops in parking spaces — to increase general pedestrian safety. Safeway is also considering investing in the involved community groups, Osborne said.
“The issue is safety for our customers and safety for our employees, but (we’re) ensuring that safety in a respectful and community-based way,” Osborne said. “We’re open to different ideas of what that entails.”
There are other conflicts local businesses are facing. In recent months, many in the community, including Seattle police, have pointed to Rainier Beach Liquor & Wine, which sits next to the Safeway, as one of the main reasons for ongoing safety issues.
In a letter sent to the state’s Liquor & Cannabis Board last November, the Seattle Police Department recommended against renewing the liquor store’s license, accusing the spot of having a “history of criminal incidents.”
Liquor store owner Aklilu Gebreyesus says the accusations are unfair, and that he’s never had any violations with the state. A spokesperson for the board said the store was cited for failing to furnish required documents in January 2019 but hasn’t had any other violations since 2015.
Gebreyesus is still waiting for the results of the board’s investigation to see if he can hold onto his liquor license — but in the meantime has been regularly participating in community town halls on public safety.
“In the beginning, we didn’t get a chance to tell our story,” he said. “We were not called for meetings, and we didn’t know what was going on. … But it has been really good lately. (The conversations) have been really inclusive and involved us local business owners.”
Zahilay and Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents South Seattle and the Chinatown International District, have joined the latest discussions but say their priority is to elevate the voices of those working in the community. In a joint statement posted last month, they urged anyone with public-safety suggestions to reach out.
“Shooting incidents and other crime in the parking lot are unacceptable and require multi-pronged solutions,” the statement said. “This is because the kinds of violence we experience in South Seattle are symptoms of generations of disinvestment compounded by the recent global pandemic.”
It continued, “In order to truly create safety, we have to support community safety strategies while also continuing to invest in the long-term well-being of the Rainier Beach neighborhood and its communities.”
Groundwork pays off
While these organized neighborhood conversations are more recent, several community groups have been laying groundwork for years.
The Safe Passage team, for example, was launched in 2015 and last year started doing regular walks around what they call the Rainier Beach Campus, encompassing Rainier Beach High School, the local community center and the neighborhood’s Safeway. Since the May 2020 shootings, the team has been out in the Safeway parking lot every single Friday.
“Ever since they’ve been around, it actually has been a lot more safe,” said Creer, who grew up in Rainier Beach. She became more involved with the program after her boyfriend was shot and killed in Tukwila last year.
“That made me look at things differently,” she said. She started asking herself, “What can I do to help stop gun violence? What can I do to better myself and better the world for my siblings?”
“So now, I try to work with (Safe Passage) as much as possible … and just be here for kids who have no extra support,” she said.
The team members — nicknamed the “Be Safe Bros” or the “Blue Coats” for their signature blue hoodies — have been trained to de-escalate situations that could lead to fights, and build relationships with Rainier Beach youth, said Marty Jackson, who launched the program six years ago.
It was intended to increase community safety by assigning after-school guardians to students and directing youth to services aiming to reduce property damage and violent crime in Rainier Beach, said Jackson, who also grew up in the neighborhood.
“It’s a sacred job,” Safe Passage director Leonard Johnson said as he scanned the Safeway lot for signs of disturbances on a recent Friday evening. “You’re helping people, you’re healing people, you’re connecting people.”
He said the team participates in frequent trainings and practice drills, including ones that simulate critical incidents or shootings, and share de-escalation tips with each other.
For example, “being able to call people by name has been really critical,” Jackson said. “When people feel like you know them and have taken the time to find out what their name is, there really is a sense of connection among community members.”
“We’re not working in a neighborhood we’re not living in,” Jackson said. “We come from the neighborhood. And it is extremely important to preserve the integrity of young people and Black and brown families.”
But navigating the issue can be complex when Seattle residents voice such different perspectives on what’s happening in the parking lot, she added.
“I don’t like the automatic assumption of, ‘Oh that’s bad,'” she said. “Just because people don’t feel safe doesn’t mean people are doing illegal things. … When you label the entire parking lot as folks who are engaging in risky behaviors, now we’ve crossed a line.”
The Safe Passage program is funded through the city’s Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, established in 2009, and is loosely modeled after similar initiatives in Chicago and Los Angeles. And according to Jackson, it’s working.
“Violent crime is down in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and it has been that way since 2015,” she said. “There were a lot of incidents that were prevented.”
Data from Seattle police shows that between 2014 and 2015 — the year Safe Passage launched — there was about a 30% decrease in violent crime in the Rainier Beach area. Numbers have gradually risen since then but remain consistently lower than before the Blue Coats started working in the neighborhood, data shows.
“The SPD has been partnered with Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth (a program that oversees Safe Passage) for years,” interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz said in a statement sent to The Seattle Times. “We’re grateful for Safe Passage and its work to reduce violence in the community and appreciate whenever community groups support youth with the ultimate goal of violence reduction.”
Despite Safe Passage’s successes, community members say there’s still a lot to be done.
“It’s not going to be some easy fix,” Chhuor said. “It’s going to take a concerted effort … to really be committed to addressing the root cause of some of these things. The thing that’s going to make it work is if people who care get involved.”
Michael Gordon, who lives in the area and has been active in the ongoing discussions, said regardless of the community’s short-term plans, he thinks it’s important to preserve the parking lot as a shared gathering space.
“A community gathering spot is special and it shouldn’t just be paved over,” he said. “Let them hang out. That’s something to be cherished. So it’s like, ‘How do we address these other issues?'”
Seattle Times staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this story.