The news was horrifying.
On Jan. 22, eight people were hit as 20 bullets flew from three gunmen in an armed dispute during rush hour on one of Seattle’s busiest intersections.
Tanya Jackson, a woman who was called a “protector” of others and who had finally gotten some stability in her life, was shot and killed; a 9-year-old boy was injured.
As officials were still trying to piece together the chain of events, public opinion had already divided into familiar camps. “More gun control and mental health care,” said folks on the left. “Harsher sentences and more police” said folks on the right.
The next day, the analysis pieces had begun to pour in, most focused on cracking down on crime.
But we have had these conversations before. Many, many, times. For the proponents of more policing, emphasis patrols and other measures have been repeatedly rolled out on Third and Pine, to little success.
As someone who once witnessed a shootout on the street, I know a bit about the terror gun violence brings. For months afterward, I couldn’t sleep unless I barricaded my bedroom door from the inside and I was scared to leave the house, for fear the shooters were going to target me as a witness.
This time, after the downtown shooting, I read the opinion pieces and I listened to the police and other officials promise solutions, but what I didn’t hear was much discussion of how we got here. I was curious what people who have been involved in crime themselves or work in youth violence prevention thought were the solutions to these seemingly intractable problems.
Community Passageways is a nonprofit that works with mostly court-involved young people of color with a vision for zero youth detention. The organization, founded by Dominique Davis in 2017, focuses on crime prevention; diversion from detention; support for those already in the prison system; and reintegration back to the community.
This work is personal for Davis. On his own since age 14, Davis said he grew up in the streets hustling to survive. Once he finally transitioned out of that life in his 30s, he knew he wanted to help protect youth who might be going down the same path.
Now 53, Davis said tragedies like the downtown shooting bring about a predictable but wrongheaded response.
Davis said the reaction usually is, “‘We need to put more patrols on the streets and … arrest more people and give them longer sentences.’ So then I ask you, did that work before?”
You need to be willing to deal with the root causes, Davis said. “This is generational. That one incident downtown can go back probably two or three generations of trauma and oppression that leads up to that one shooting.”
Davis said the city needs to learn to respond before something happens.
Community Passageways’ strategy is to pull participants out of survival mode and into opportunity mode. There is no quick fix.
You have to work with parents to make sure the family has their housing and food needs met and the adults are not struggling with addiction or mental health issues. You need to re-educate young people — many of whom are veterans of the school-to-prison pipeline — that their lives have value and they have potential. You have to utilize the expertise and vision of credible messengers who have been there and can provide consistent support. And then you have to have jobs that pay a living wage in a city with record-high rents. If there is no way for a young person to feed themselves legally, they are going to turn to illegal means.
Brandon Shell knows this struggle firsthand. Now a community ambassador for Community Passageways, Shell, 37, also grew up in the streets and in jail and said his journey started with basic survival.
Rebellious and running away at 13, Shell stole food to eat and clothes to wear. “It starts off with that little stuff,” Shell said, “and then it grows into, ‘OK, now he’s carrying a gun. Now he’s selling drugs.’ But it starts small with the basic need to just fend for myself and feed myself.”
Shell said when he was young, all he wanted people to know was, “I’m hopeful. I’m not hopeless. That I can be saved, that my life is worth something. That I am a kid. Most of all I am a kid. I am going to make mistakes. Don’t throw me away.”
At Community Passageways, Shell said, no young person is disposable. “We never give up.” He said if adults believe in young people, even after they do bad things, young people will eventually start to believe in themselves and then change is possible.
This kind of community-based approach is working. Studies are finding that keeping young people out of detention and connected to community support costs less and works better than the tough-on-crime approach that so many favor.
There is no simple answer to these problems. When we are scared, it’s tempting to want to lock our problems out of sight so we can feel safer. But we can’t incarcerate our way out of crime. Asking young people and leaders like Davis and Shell for their ideas and solutions should be a core part of a prevention strategy, because what we have been doing is not working.