By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Grim-faced and sullen, about 50 residents of Beacon Hill and surrounding areas listened to a police representative give safety tips on Thursday night after a string of unsolved violent robberies hit their neighborhoods over the past few months.
“Calling the police actually doesn’t do anything,” said a woman from Guangdong who has lived in the area for 26 years and asked for anonymity out of fear of being identified in the media. “All they do is come and give you a case number.”
Her friend, a more recent immigrant from the same place, who works at Safeway, nodded her head.
Thus, the challenges faced by the police as they seek to extend protection to the Asian American community were, to a small extent, brought into relief.
At a public safety workshop held by Chinese Information Service Center (CISC) at the Jefferson Park Community Center on Beacon Hill featuring Mark Solomon, a crime prevention coordinator for the Seattle Police Department, questions were asked that reflected a widespread sense of unease—not just about the robberies, but about the police response and authorities in general.
On one hand, residents came away with a sense of mild alienation. According to a handful interviewed after the event, there seemed to be a worry that the police were holding the victims partially responsible for the attacks—through lack of vigilance or lack of friendliness to neighbors.
On the other hand, throughout the evening, which lasted nearly two hours in a small classroom, there was a real desire to get life-saving information from Solomon—and in several cases, at least, community members said they learned important lessons that they felt would help keep them safe.
Afterwards: what was learned
As we stood outside the community center at 8:30 pm, with a crescent orange moon hanging above the trees, police cars flashed by on Beacon Avenue South every few minutes, lights blazing, sirens hurtling noise and fire.
It was a fitting reminder of the plight of the residents who had come to hear about how the police could make them safer.
The tip that community members found the most helpful, according to interviews conducted by Northwest Asian Weekly, was about a spate of recent carjackings.
Solomon called these “bump and rob,” which occasioned some mirth among the Cantonese interpreters as they sought the appropriate Chinese words to match.
In such a practice, a criminal will hit your car from the rear—just hard enough so that you’ll want to pull over and inspect the damage.
“If this happens to you, don’t pull over,” said Solomon. “Drive somewhere very well-lit with more people, someplace where there are cameras and bright lights or a supermarket or the parking lot of a police precinct. And call 911.”
Otherwise, the robbers wait until you get out of your car and hold you up with a gun or other weapon and take your cash, wallet, phone, jewelry—and your car.
At the end of the program, several residents of the area said they had not heard of this practice before and would be on the lookout for it—and were grateful.
Other tips given by Solomon, though considered helpful, were refracted through a lens of uncertainty about whether they were meant in any way as criticisms of Asian cultural practices.
For instance, Solomon said it is important, if you’re outside gardening, or coming home from the store, or getting into your car, to be vigilant—to look around and make sure you are not being followed.
The more recent immigrant who worked at Safeway said it was not clear if Solomon was blaming Asian Americans for being oblivious or irresponsible.
At the same time, she acknowledged the tip was helpful and important.
Another similar contretemps was Solomon’s injunction for Asian Americans to reach out to people in the neighborhood.
“It may not be natural for you to look someone in the eye and acknowledge their presence,” he said.
Many Asian immigrants do come from cultures where it is valued to respect others’ privacy. But it was not clear to some if there was a tinge of reproach.
“I have made eye contact with every person in this room,” Solomon said. “Did you feel I was staring you down?”
Solomon said, by waving to people on the street and saying, “hello,” if they were simply strangers, they would think it was a friendly neighborhood. But if they were criminals, they would know someone had an eye on them.
“If I’m on the block to commit a crime, I would think they’ve seen me,” he said.
Still, the Cantonese immigrant who worked at Safeway said she was burglarized twice in the space of six months 10 years ago. Recently, she saw online a video of a Vietnamese American man being assaulted on his front porch by two robbers.
She said she was not sure what increased vigilance would have done.
In the video, the two youths appear quickly, almost snaking into the man’s yard after he has entered. They hold him up, and one fires a taser into him, temporarily paralyzing him.
“They were so young,” said the woman. “If he had had his keys out, they would have gone into the house.”
One of the problems for some audience members was that fear of violence was tempered by fear of the consequences of mishandling interactions with the police.
Near the end of the session, when time was running out, and CISC Executive Director Michael Itti asked Solomon to keep his answers short, Solomon was asked if someone would be punished if she called 911 believing she was being stalked—and then it turned out she was mistaken.
Solomon replied, “No.” Then, after a moment added, “They told me to keep it short.”
Other fears were less palpable.
One resident asked—most questions were handed up on note cards and CISC staff read them aloud in English and Cantonese—if calling 911 cost money.
Solomon also replied in the negative.
“It does not cost money to use 911,” he said.
“What should we do if someone gets into our house?” was another question.
Solomon began by explaining all the ways the police could advise about safeguarding a house to make it more difficult to penetrate, such as installing longer screws in a lock so a door could not so easily be kicked in or increasing lighting outside or trimming shrubbery where someone could hide.
When questioned further, he said the best thing was to get to a room inside your house where you could lock yourself in and call 911.
Pressed still further, after a number of people asked whether or not they should try to defend themselves, or whether anyone had successfully employed self-defense in the 13-14 reported robberies, Solomon was more explicit.
“If it’s about property, then cooperate. If it’s about your safety, you have the right to defend yourself,” he said. “None of the victims have used self-defense.”
Still, it was not immediately clear what he or the residents meant by self-defense.
One inkling came afterwards when the immigrant from Guangdong, who had been here for 26 years, said she and her husband owned five guns.
“We have eight people in our house to protect,” she said.
Grievances and mistrust of the city came out.
One grey-haired resident speaking in Cantonese in the back of the room, as many others nodded their heads in agreement, said he had complained to the city multiple times about a cul-de-sac laced with heavy trees where drug users took advantage of the darkness to do their business.
Solomon said he could mobilize city agencies, including utilities and arborists.
“If I have the address, I can mobilize the team,” he said.
Another tenuous success was the introduction of what Solomon explained as “Smart 911.”
In response to a question about whether police would automatically know the location of a caller, depending on if it were a landline or a cellphone, Solomon introduced this supplemental data service. A person can, in advance, create a “profile” by entering all personal details, such as home address, including apartment number, and even medications taken.
After a call, the information would not remain with the police. But during a call, it would allow police to respond according to the needs of the individual.
Itti added that what was essential for the communities involved was that a language preference could also be included in one’s profile.
Other ways to remain safe involve forming a block watch and exchanging information with your neighbors.
“If your alarm goes off, and your neighbor calls, we will get that call before we will get a call from the alarm monitoring company,” said Solomon.
A loud alarm system and a high-resolution security camera—if you choose to invest in one—are also helpful.
If the police come out to do a security assessment and offer suggestions about how to improve the safety of your home, they can bring interpreters.
When to call 911
As for when to call 911—rather than the non-emergency police number—Solomon urged residents to simply call 911 without hesitation.
In answer to multiple questions, however, he said the dispatch would always prioritize life and safety crimes over property crimes.
He urged residents to practice saying in English what language they spoke so an operator could connect them with an interpreter.
“Cantonese,” he modeled, repeating it three times.
All anyone needs to do is say one of those languages, and the operator will connect him to over 194 possible different interpreters.
For more personal safety tips, go to:
To sign up for Smart911, go to: https://smart911.com/
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.