Four months after the murder of neighborhood hero Donnie Chin, after the memorials and news coverage had faded into the background, residents of Seattle’s historic Chinatown/International District (CID) filled the Nagomi tea room on a cold November night. City officials had promised an update on the progress of the homicide investigation from the Seattle Police Department.
Deputy Chief of Police Carmen Best stood before the room, calm as the crowd pressed her for information. But it soon became clear she had nothing to report. Because the Chin case was still an open investigation, there was little she could reveal.
Best said what she could — that the investigators were pursuing active leads, that the department had the neighborhood in mind, that these meetings would become more regular affairs — but for the crowd, it was not enough. A man in the back fought tears. Chin’s sister Connie gripped her husband’s hand.
For residents of the CID, Chin’s unsolved murder is more than the loss of a friend; they view it as the direct result of the city’s neglect for their neighborhood’s problems.
Then Cindy Domingo, a legislative aide to King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, cut through the angry haze with a question that might have seemed out of place at a meeting that was about the death of Chin and the state of the community he loved:
“I want to know what kind of work is being done in the East African community,” Domingo said. “That’s where the gangs were from that had something to do with Donnie’s killing. What kind of work is being done there? Because people know. People know something that can help crack this case.”
The shooting in the CID is widely believed to be the product of a dispute between gangs. At least one of them is considered East African, according to Assistant Police Chief Bob Merner. Rumor has it that the shootout was about money. Chin, a beloved, self-appointed community watchdog was caught in the crossfire.
Chin’s case wasn’t necessarily an isolated incident. Twenty percent more shots were fired in 2015 than in 2014 and Kathleen O’Toole has blamed East African gang violence for some of that spike.
So as much as Chin’s death has become the symptom of the issues and concerns within the International District, it can also be seen as a symptom of the challenges within the East African community: gangs, the inevitable divide between first-generation Americans and their parents, and the immigrant community’s troubled relationship with the city and the police.
It’s now March, and Seattle Police homicide case 252355 remains unsolved. As the SPD sweeps the region for clues into Chin’s death — going undercover, leveraging low-level arrests of gang members for information — some suggest that the work to solve or even prevent his murder was the work of 10 years ago, not today.
Donnie Chin was shot as he was driving, three times in the chest.
Police were dispatched at 2:54 a.m. on July 23. They found him in the driver’s seat, his car on the sidewalk, its front bumper just barely touching the side of a building near 8th and Lane. When the paramedics arrived, he was alive but struggling.
Richard Huie, an employee with the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority and manager of an apartment building near the scene, heard the gunfire. In minutes, Huie was on the phone with a man who said he thought he saw Donnie’s car, riddled with nearly a dozen bullet holes.
“I called [Chin’s] number immediately,” says Huie. “He always picks up. But it just went to voicemail and I just had some kind of sinking feeling.”
When Huie arrived at the scene, paramedics were frantically trying to save Chin’s life — some may have known Chin personally, from his years of responding to scenes like this one. “All of the sudden, they just stopped,” Huie says. “There was no rushing off to Harborview. Based on that, we knew he didn’t make it. There was no real urgency to get him further medical attention.”
Chin wasn’t officially declared dead until his body reached Harborview. “59-year-old male,” reads the medical examiner’s file on Chin. “July 23. Multiple gunshot wounds. In the matter of homicide.”
Donnie Chin was the neighborhood’s protector, its philanthropist, its mayor. As Huie spread word of his death, the news echoed through the community and the email chains of local and national political figures. Days later, a crowd of hundreds spilled onto the streets at his memorial in Hing Hay Park.
Even today, more than seven months after his death, Chin’s memorial in Canton Alley has fresh flowers. It’s the outpouring of a community that knew Mr. Chin as the man who patrolled the streets at 3 o’clock on Thursday mornings, who served as a sort of security blanket for the neighborhood, who kept a loose lid on the frustrations of the CID’s old and young.
On the day of the shooting, Jamal Ahmed, a young Somali man, heard chatter at the barbershop.
This is not uncommon when trouble goes down, especially when there are rumors of East African involvement. “People in the city have a quick idea about which people are involved,” Ahmed says. But on this particular day, the talk was mostly speculative. Nobody had names.
Ahmed is a part of a diverse, and growing, community of people who have come to the Seattle area from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya. In 2012, King County estimated that about 23,000 residents spoke Somali, Amharic or Tigrinya in their homes; other estimates put the African-born population around 40,000. Thousands of their American-born children are now coming up through the public schools.
The stories of how they ended up in Seattle are, predictably, tragic. Those coming from Ethiopia faced decades of political strife and drought; those from Somalia fled civil war and the collapse of a regime. Their paths to Seattle often detoured through refugee camps in Kenya or other nearby countries.
Among the East African community, there tends to be a direct correlation between age and accent. Those who came to the U.S. later in life — some of whom were highly educated and held government jobs back in Somalia — tend to work inside the community, at the community center or with the youth. Younger people, meanwhile, fold into the community as seamlessly as anyone -- working in Seattle Public Schools, King County, IT, for example.
Among the elders, youth, and community leaders, there is near unanimous agreement that their premier struggle is violence among its young people. In an October column for the Seattle Globalist, Ahmed said he could count four shooting deaths of young men in his community since August. Others count upward of 10 young men shot dead over the course of the last year.
As a Program Manager at Seattle Central Community College, Ahmed is a point person for young people in his community, especially those from Somali families. That gives him an ear to the ground. “I see a lot of kids come through the college,” he says. He notices things among the young people he works with — behavior, affiliations — that the older generation might miss. “It comes to me much easier than someone in the elderly community.”
The gangs sometimes have as few as 10 members. They come and go, with names like East African Posse, Black Gangster Disciples, Valley Hood Piru, Yesler Terrace Bloods, Down with the Crew, 74 Hoover Criminals, and East Union Street Hustlers. Ahmed says they form around drugs or territory or anything, really.
Theories vary about why gangs are such a problem. “Each and every one of us was being raised in a violent nation where there was no law and order,” says Hassan Diis, a Somali man who works as the East African Liaison for the 37th District Democrats. Young people, he says, see how their parents struggle for work and want quicker success. This is America after all. As children see their older cousins and brothers with nice clothes, nice shoes, nice jewelry, robbery and crime become a temptation that’s hard to resist.
Mohammed Roble of the city’s East African Community Advisory Council points to high dropout rates. “Kids drop out of school and they commit crimes,” says Roble. And as they fall, there isn’t always a net to catch them.
“Immigrant parents have many things to worry about,” says Ahmed. “It’s the kids that kind of fall out and they get adopted by their friends.”
Ahlam Ibraahim, 17, a senior at Rainier Beach High School, is all too familiar with the story. Her parents moved from Somalia in 1992, so by 1998, when she was born, they were pretty well adjusted to life in Seattle.
Ibraahim is an evangelist for positive youth -- careful to say that people her age, from her background go to Ivy League schools and to high-paying jobs as much as anyone. Any mention of “East African” is problematic -- it’s a diverse region with many different cultures.
For Ibraahim, violence is personal. Last summer her cousin was caught up in a conflict. His mother, concerned for his safety, had him on lockdown in the house for protection. But she let him go, just this once, to the funeral of a friend who had been killed as a result of the very same dispute. He was on the phone with his mother, outside the mosque where the funeral took place, when he too was gunned down.
“It’s one big high school drama,” says Ibraahim of the gang activity in the South End’s East African community. This person gets mad at that person, then this group retaliates on that group. “It becomes normal in the community. It’s sad.”
In its investigation into Donnie Chin’s death, the Seattle Police Department dispatched a flurry of resources, from homicide, forensics, the gang unit, narcotics and the anti-crime team.
And as detectives collected evidence and fished for tips, the department also turned to what it calls “alternative investigations.” Detectives have worked undercover, starting further upstream of the gangs. The department has traveled beyond the borders of Seattle into Kent and Tukwila, targeting known gang members and arresting them for low-level crimes like public consumption and possession.
Assistant Chief Robert Merner, the department’s head of investigations, says the approach is “putting pressure on various entities so that, as they are involved in other criminal activity, our homicide people follow up on that.”
Once gang members are in custody, the hope is that they will speak up about who killed Donnie Chin.
In a shooting between two gangs, getting people to talk is a challenge. When there’s “an innocent” like Chin involved, Merner says the case is even harder. “What is the incentive for the people that were shooting on this side and that side who don’t get hit and catch Donnie Chin in the middle?” he says. “They don’t know Donnie Chin.”
The department’s job was made all the more complicated by the city’s response to the distraught residents of the CID, who demanded increased police presence in the neighborhood and a crackdown on the type of activity that led to Chin’s death.
Mayor Ed Murray’s first move was to close hookah lounges across the city, arguing that they were gathering places for gangs and breeding grounds for crime. King’s Hookah Lounge, a common stop on Donnie’s patrols, and the scene of his death, had been the site of protests from community members after the shooting who felt it was the epicenter of crime in the CID.
The move splintered the East African community. “When Donnie Chin got killed, all hell broke loose,” says Ahmed. Sheikh Abdirizak Toocil, the Imam at Abubakar Mosque off MLK Jr. Way, praised the decision. Others blasted the Mayor, calling it misplaced logic, even racist.
Ahmed takes it step further: he believes shuttering the hookah lounges closed an important door on the investigation.
“For the positive youth out there — the people that would have actually helped [investigators] — it went a long way to show that the city doesn’t care about the community,” he says. “It made it extremely hard to get anything out of this community. The people not engaged in violence, especially the youth, these are the hang out areas. The closure made it extremely hard to get anything out of this community.”
Murray backed off the public safety message, spinning it more as a matter of public health, akin to banning smoking in bars. His office recently released a racial equity report on the decision, which reflects many of the complaints Crosscut heard in interviews. But Ahmed says the damage was already done.
The city has made strides toward building better relations with the East African community.
Since Kathleen O’Toole became Seattle’s new police chief, the top brass of SPD have made more trips to the Somali Community Center in Othello than its head, Sahra Farah, can remember any other administration making. Seattle’s Office of Immigrants and Refugees is conducting a needs assessment for the East African community. It employs a man, Mohammed Sheikh Hassan, tasked specifically with community outreach. In addition to its East African liaison and advisory council, SPD has a Muslim, Arab and Sikh advisory council. (In response to possible hate crimes against local Muslims, Sheikh Toocil said his mosque has received heightened patrols, which he appreciates.)
The City has also recently partnered with the Safe Youth Violence Prevention Institute, an organization that does outreach to young people at risk of street violence.
Rainier Beach’s Ibraahim spoke most highly of the city’s Youth Employment Initiative, which Mayor Murray recently announced he would expand.
“Before we had no connection,” says Roble. No one, he says, knew how to work with families or the community’s youth. There was no understanding of where they’d come from or their previous interactions with law enforcement. Problems in general were not identified.
“The relationship we have is improving,” says Roble. He points to coffee hours with SPD and the department’s new East African Liaison, Habtamu Abdi. “We come together, we talk about issues when we have concern and we tell them what we want. We are new to this country; we don’t know how it works.”
Assistant Chief Merner, the head of investigations, came to Seattle from Boston last winter. His accent is as thick as they come; he drops his Rs and lengthens his vowels as he speaks. But when he talks about Seattle geography, he rattles off the neighborhoods, suburbs and street names like he’s lived here his whole life.
He worked extensively with Boston’s Somali population, starting community basketball games and meals. “That was when you really got to the kids in the room that were on bracelets, that had curfews,” he said.
Merner is proud of his work in Boston, and even shows off his koofiyad and macawis (Somali hat and scarf) gifted to him. He understands the importance of people’s interactions with the police, especially among immigrant populations. His hope is to bring the same level of engagement to Seattle.
“What folks have to remember, whether they like police or not, is that the contact to government in every major city in the United States is the police,” says Merner. “If we’re the first conduit of government for communities that need the most, then we have to make sure we’re a good conduit.”
Still, within the East African community, skepticism of the city is widespread.
Visits from top officials only go so far before people want to see action. “It’s very stagnant,” says Michael Neguse of the Seattle Neighborhood Group. “I hear a lot of frustration. Last summer, we lost a lot of kids. When this happens, the mayor calls us, the deputy mayor comes, but then nothing happens.”
Among Ibraahim’s friends at Rainier Beach High School, she says distrust of police runs deep. Ahmed calls the efforts “lip service.” Neguse, who has been working as a community advocate for 16 years, says there was very little consultation when SPD hired its East African liaison.
Diis grew especially disenchanted over the lack of discussion of East African community issues during last November’s elections. “Even in the city elections,” he says, “there was not such a thing called gangs. There was nothing called gang violence.”
In the Seattle Globalist, Fathi Karshie explores why this mistrust is so persistent, blaming poor coordination and communication as well as a general mistrust of government institutions. More important than coffee groups or city departments, she says, “immigrants and refugees are most likely to readily accept what a trusted neighbor offers.”
That final point resonates deeply. The police department is disproportionately white and has been criticized recently for its lack of a specific outreach plan to racial and ethnic communities, which some say has led to poor diversity and “cultural competency.” As a result, trust of SPD among communities of color hasn’t budged.
“Those who the SPD hire are from Everett, Bellevue,” says Diis. “They need to hire people from this neighborhood. Those are what makes a difference in the community. Those issues and conflicts are the bigger picture.”
In fact, SPD hired its first Somali-American police officer, Mohammed Said, in 2014. He was fired before completing his probationary period, crushing the optimism among many in the Somali community.
Both Diis and Ahmed say this representation issue is a direct impediment to people speaking up about Donnie Chin. “I think many people will say, ‘I know who shot him,’” says Diis. But, he adds, “It’s very difficult to come forward and talk to a white guy.”
One community member, who asked not to be identified for safety concerns, remembers a story from 2014, as gang crime was flaring up. He caught a whiff of who was involved and came forward. “I personally gave [the SPD] the whole details exactly of who was where and what they did,” he says.
But he never heard any follow up. “The police say, ‘We don’t get help from the community,’ but when someone like me takes that risk, there’s no traction.”
“The few that would go out of their way to say something,” says the community member, “I’d say it was just like me. I hear a lot of things. But we say things and don’t see anything happening. So why would we take the risk and say something? Every year something happens and nothing happens.”
The sorrow for Donnie’s death is hardly bound to neighborhood borders or ethnic profile.
Somali Americans Abdi Mohamed of Working Washington and Zamzam Mohamed sit on the CID’s task force and the East African business owners in the CID have expressed great sadness for his death. Neguse of Seattle Neighborhood Group says he knew Donnie and was deeply saddened by his death. Diis posted a picture of Chin on his Facebook page.
And as tragedy doesn’t live in a silo, neither do community level issues. Just as you can’t separate poverty from development from transportation from race, understanding Chin’s death means understanding the issues in both the CID and East African community. Why, exactly, were Donnie and his killers on 8th and Lane at 3 in the morning in the first place?
Cindy Domingo suggested joint community meetings to “break the intimidation.” Public officials and Chief Best showed interest, although no plans have been announced.
If and when the Seattle Police Department finds who pulled the trigger, that person should go to jail. But it also ought to be acknowledged that Donnie Chin’s death was not an isolated event. The killing that’s tearing apart one immigrant community is the product of an epidemic that’s tearing apart a different one, farther south. To fix one, the City needs to fix the other.
Meanwhile, the search for Chin’s killer goes on. Merner says the police know the names of the gangs involved in Chin’s shooting, but he can’t — or won’t — say if they have an individual. He does say, however, “In many, many years of doing investigations and homicides, there were very, very few homicides where we didn’t know who did it. It’s proving it that’s challenging.”
Clarification, March 21: Ms. Ibraahim wanted to clarify that her cousin was not a known gang member.