In late March, Sonny Nguyen was hired by the Chinatown International District Public Safety Steering Committee as public safety coordinator for the neighborhood. Nguyen’s hiring came after a succession of community-led efforts to address the neighborhood’s decades-old public safety problems. Following the murder of longtime CID public safety champion Donnie Chin in 2015 during a shooting between rival gangs, Mayor Ed Murray assembled a public safety task force in early 2016 to come up with recommendations for improving public safety. Nguyen was one of 19 members of that task force, which released a report with a list of recommendations that helped shape the Mayor’s July 2016 CID public safety action plan.
Nguyen’s job as neighborhood public safety coordinator was one of three positions created by the Mayor’s action plan. The others were the Community Engagement and Outreach Specialist with the Seattle Police Department—a position held by Vicky Li—and for a Community Projects Manager with the City’s Department of Neighborhoods, held by Ben Han.
Nguyen, age 26, has a background in community engagement through the Washington Bus Fellowship, and as a founding member of API Food Fight Club, an organizing coalition for young APIs. Nguyen is a few weeks into his new job, which will be funded for two years. In an interview with the International Examiner (edited for length and clarity), Nguyen spoke about what they’ve been up to so far on the job, the reasons for the CID’s public safety problems, and why they think the neighborhood doesn’t deserve its NIMBY reputation.
International Examiner: How did you decide you wanted this job?
Sonny Nguyen: In 2014, I reconnected with some friends and we started a coalition called API Food Fight Club, which is a supporting network and organizing coalition for young Asian American artists, activists and community nonprofit workers in the neighborhood.
So we did a little bit of public safety work, especially in response to Donnie’s death shortly after we formed as a group, and from that I got invited to sit on the Mayor’s public safety task force for the neighborhood. I’ve always loved this neighborhood, but it was through Food Fight Club and the task force that I really strengthened my appreciation for this neighborhood and felt called to come and do some of that public safety work more directly. And then when the job posting came out I knew that I wanted it.
I care a lot about public safety, especially crime prevention through community engagement and crime prevention through environmental design—different ways that we can create safer communities without necessarily just putting more police in the area. I think that is one tactic that is really important, especially in this neighborhood, is that we do need stronger police response times, more bike cops or officers walking beats in the neighborhood and strengthening that community relationship with the police—and I know a lot of folks really advocate for that. But I’m also very, very much interested in figuring out what are the other ways, what are the community-sourced ways that we can reduce crime in our neighborhood. And I come from a background in grassroots organizing and community engagement, so I’m very excited to bring these two passions together.
IE: What does your job as public safety coordinator involve?
SN: Out of the Mayor’s public safety task force, there was a huge list of recommendations. Along with my job, there are two other positions that were created for public safety in this neighborhood. One is focusing someone at the department of neighborhoods to public safety in this neighborhood, and that is Ben Han. And then Vicky Li got hired as the Seattle Police Department Community Engagement and Outreach Specialist—working with SPD, working with the City, and then me working with the community and all of us working together to move forward the recommendations created by the task force last year.
So a lot of that is meeting with folks and doing these kind of boring behind the scenes things, but what I’m most excited about is meeting with the community and figuring out what they want me to do. I work for the entire community. So actually starting this week I’m going all around Little Saigon to meet all the business owners and to get their ideas of what’s going to make a better, safer neighborhood for them so that I can incorporate that into my work plan.
IE: What have you heard from people so far about what they want for public safety in the neighborhood?
SN: I think in this neighborhood, homelessness is a big concern for folks, and while I think there’s a narrative in a lot of different media outlets in our city that kind of paints the CID as this very NIMBY neighborhood, most of the folks I’ve talked to are very compassionate. They want to figure out how to help folks who have nowhere else to go while also making sure that everyone in this neighborhood is taken care of—everyone including the homeless folks. So meeting the manager of Uwajimaya and hearing that he’s very much interested in strengthening his security team’s approach to getting service providers to come to folks who may need those services before just calling the police or trying to send them to jail or anything. Meeting with folks who have folks camping out in their doorways and hearing them say they want to figure out, how do we get them somewhere more permanent that is less risky for both the business and the person.
So definitely the homelessness, and also this neighborhood is very poorly-lit, it’s very dark at night, folks feel really scared walking around, and have been for years, I think for as long as I have been hanging out in the district, it’s been “you’re not supposed to come here after dark.” But there’s a lighting study being done to figure out how we can best address that and fix the lighting issues in the neighborhood.
IE: Last September, the City Council heard testimony about a proposal that would give residents of homeless encampments more time before the encampments were cleared. Many CID residents then and now were concerned about this proposal, and framed the growth of homelessness in the neighborhood as a threat. At the time, you gave testimony criticizing the City for pitting APIs against the homeless; one marginalized group against another.
Do you think there’s still a culture of doing this—pitting marginalized groups against one another—in the City? And what do you see as your role in mending relationships between CID residents and the homeless?
SN: I think it’s the culture of our society, right? It makes a more interesting story when it’s like one of the most impoverished neighborhood in the community fighting against another highly impoverished community.
So after that City Council testimony I got a lot of flak from folks all across the city, but what I strongly believe is that we all want the same thing. We all want there to be fewer homeless people, and we all want them in stable housing, we all want them to be healthy and we all want this neighborhood to be healthy—and we just have different ideas of how to get there. The neighborhood was hurting, the neighborhood was at a loss, we didn’t have the resources, we didn’t have the support to figure out, what do we do with this massive amount of homelessness?
It was overnight, right? Nickelsville gets shut down, then within a few weeks the Jungle gets cleared out and everyone gets pushed into the neighborhood—and we don’t know what to do because we don’t have a lot of homeless services in the neighborhood. And I understand that as a reaction—like, get them out. That was a very strong reaction for a lot of folks. And I think part of my role is figuring out, how do we work as one big community all together to build a safer neighborhood?
Donnie was very invested in the homeless population in the ID, too. He knew folks by name, he knew where they camped out, and he wasn’t interested in just pushing people around or moving them from place to place—he was interested in figuring out, how do we get them to get their needs met, how do we reach out to different service providers that come into the neighborhood to make sure that they have the option of a shelter or know how to get into transitional housing. So I think that’s going to be a lot of what I do, is making sure that those referrals are being made, that folks know what their options are and that there’s coordinated outreach coming to them to talk to them about where they can go.
IE: There’s the recent controversy over the new homeless Navigation Center being built in Little Saigon, which Friends of Little Saigon said was done without much communication or input from the neighborhood. What are your thoughts on this?
SN: I think the Friends of Little Saigon have been leading a really strong and really smart effort to figure out how we best prepare for the Navigation Center. A lot of that is getting the City to recognize that you can’t just drop these things into our neighborhood anymore. That we need to be able to plan for this, we need to figure out, how do we make sure that folks coming into the neighborhood are invested and ready to be good neighbors too?
IE: What do you think are the sources of the CID’s public safety problems? People have blamed homelessness, and not long ago, the hookah lounges. You’ve said both of these are not the real sources of the problem. What are the real sources of the problem?
SN: I think it’s a lack of strong infrastructure in the neighborhood. Both physical infrastructure like lighting, sidewalks. There are poor police response times—there’s just a lot of need in this neighborhood that hasn’t been met yet. And I also think that one of the issues with having what’s effectively a restaurant neighborhood is that there aren’t as many folks who are as invested. I live in Queen Anne, so when people come to Queen Anne, that feels like part of their city, that feels like something that they all care about, even if they’re just passing through. And I think that’s something that we don’t really have in the International District. As folks from outside the district come in, either passing through for Seahawks games or whatever, there’s not the same kind of investment. And trying to figure out, how do we strengthen our community by engaging them, by getting folks to meet their neighbors, by building that level of community engagement together. How do we get the rest of the City to buy into that and realize this is a valuable part of their city as well, and that we all need to take care of it together?
IE: What about the problem of organized crime in the neighborhood—Donnie Chin was killed in the crossfire of a shooting between rival gangs. What, if anything, are the solutions to this problem?
SN: So two resources in our neighborhood are the east precinct and west precinct community police teams. I met with the CPT officers for the International District, and then the one for Little Saigon. They both assured me that violent crime is pretty rare in our neighborhood, even compared to other neighborhoods across the city. So things like that are kind of like one-offs. We don’t see a lot of gang activity anymore. I think in the ’90s [it was a] huge issue in our neighborhood, and the further back you go, the bigger organized crime was as a problem. And I think the city and the police did a very good job and are doing a good job of keeping violent crime fairly low in our neighborhood.
Some of the other big crime issues are around drug use and drug dealing. And that’s a hard one to address from a community side, because folks who are dealing drugs in our community usually aren’t the folks who are living here or invested highly in our community. So far I’ve been deferring to the police and learning more about what tactics they’re using, what’s working, what’s not working, and how do we as a community better report what we see. And I think that’s the biggest thing, and one of my biggest tasks is trying to get this community to report the crimes that we see. Looking back at the past few public safety surveys that [InterIm CDA] and [SCIDpda] and the data that they’ve released, our neighborhood severely underreports crimes, both violent and nonviolent here. And while I will be the first to admit that police response times are not great in this neighborhood, and, you know, I’ve called police and they didn’t show up at all or showed up hours later, it’s still very vital we make those calls so that they know that we’re paying attention and that we see these things happening in the neighborhood. So even if they’re not addressed in the same night, they’d know that like, there’s chronic drug dealing going on at these corners of the neighborhood.
IE: Is there any way to encourage more people to report the crime they see?
SN: We’re trying—it’s so hard, right—and there’s a lot of reasons why our neighborhood underreports crime. Like, we have a lot of immigrants who come from places where the police were not to be trusted, police were dangerous, governments were dangerous to them. So there’s a lot of fear of the police — and then I’ve talked to folks who feel like there’s no point to calling because the police won’t come, or that this issue isn’t big enough for the police to deal with, the police won’t care. Or that they’ll be a nuisance to the police if they call. There’s a lot of reasons that people don’t want to call the police, and I’m trying to figure out, what are the best ways that we address that and make sure that folks know that it’s important to call, and that there are services on the SPD end to make sure that when people call—they’re getting their needs met.
IE: Are there things you want to change about how the city, or other public or private agencies approach public safety in the neighborhood?
SN: One of my big things is that putting more police in the neighborhood isn’t the solution. I think it’s a tactic, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of public safety in our neighborhood. That we really need to do our best to work across all agencies with the city, with everyone who comes through this neighborhood, lives in this neighborhood, works in this neighborhood, to build a stronger, more vibrant community that looks out for each other and knows each other. That folks aren’t just coming in for Dragonfest but that the CID’s a place that folks want to come to regularly, that the new Hing Hay Park is being utilized and activated and there’s events happening, that this is a real cultural touchstone for the City.
IE: Your position is for two years—what happens after that?
SN: The funding from the City lasts for two years and then after that we’ll see what happens next. My goal is to get as much as I can done in two years, and hopefully if this contract doesn’t continue or if I don’t continue in this same role, that in the two years I have given the neighborhood the tools it needs to be able to advocate for itself. So even if I’m not around to help them figure out, what do I do about sharps that I find in my business bathroom, that they know who to call about that or how to make sure that those things are addressed.
The community is invited to a Public Safety Reception hosted by the The Chinatown International District Public Safety Steering Committee on May 11 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (program starts at 5:30 p.m.) at Four Seas Restaurant (714 S King St, Seattle, WA 98104). For more information, contact Sonny Nguyen at (206) 838-8718 or [email protected].