Sonny Nguyen, Chinatown International District (CID) Public Safety Coordinator • Photo by Auriza Ugalino

Sonny Nguyen, the first person to hold the City-funded job of Chinatown International District (CID) Public Safety Coordinator, is leaving their position at the end of 2019. Nguyen’s job was one of three roles (along with an SPD liaison and a Department of Neighborhoods position) created through a CID public safety plan convened by Mayor Murray after the murder of beloved neighborhood public safety champion Donnie Chin.

Nguyen began working in spring 2017 and was tasked with carrying out a neighborhood public safety action plan, which was shaped by a list of recommendations produced by 19-member task force Nguyen sat on. Nguyen’s salary was funded by a City Council budget allocation of $150,000 over two years (renewed for a further two years). While not a City employee, Nguyen reports to a Public Safety Council which includes one seat for a mayoral appointee, the captain of the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) West Precinct, and ten seats for community members.

At first, Nguyen worked with the City and SPD on high-level policy for neighborhood public safety, but their role shifted to include more direct service work, including helping small businesses deal with break-ins or supporting people robbed or assaulted in the street. 

Nguyen told the International Examiner that it wasn’t the type of work they expected to be doing. But it led to some of Nguyen’s proudest moments on the job, like helping the boutique Moksha after a break-in by providing surveillance footage, or helping a person who came into the office and said they were assaulted to file a police report in their language.

Looking back at the public safety policy initiatives they had a hand in, Nguyen is most proud of SPD combining Little Saigon and the rest of the CID into one police precinct, and successfully getting a City-funded REACH Outreach Care Coordinator for homelessness outreach back to the CID, a role now held by Jessica Kwon. 

This last effort taught Nguyen lessons about City policy and neighborhood tenacity. Initially, the Human Services Department took away funding for a full-time staff member dedicated to homelessness outreach in the CID. When Nguyen and the Public Safety Council insisted they needed this position, they were repeatedly turned down from people in half a dozen City departments. Taking inspiration from “amazing activists that built Chinatown,” like Uncle Bob Santos and Maiko Winkler-Chin of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) — “folks that I know don’t take no for an answer” — Nguyen and the Public Safety Council kept pushing, and got the position funded. This experience helped Nguyen realize “this neighborhood doesn’t need to take ‘No.’”

Before starting their job, Nguyen was at odds with some in the neighborhood who favored more aggressive action against homeless encampments. “It was right when I-5 had just gotten swept and there was that massive encampment around InterIm’s parking lot,” Nguyen said. Reading open letters from people in the CID asking for sweeps was “hard.” But over time, Nguyen has come to empathize with people who hold such viewpoints, even if they don’t agree. “We all have the same values — we all want a safer neighborhood, and we all have different ideas of how to get there,” Nguyen said. “Now I’m able to understand better that we have this common ground, and what strategies meet in that middle that really get at what we both want?”

The stresses of public service, like being a scapegoat for public safety strategies that don’t work or aren’t being implemented, contributed to Nguyen leaving the job. “There’s a sentiment that my job is to end crime or solve the homelessness crisis,” Nguyen said. “I try my best to remember that sometimes when folks are frustrated, they just need to be heard. But a part of why I’m leaving is that it is emotionally-draining to be that person.” As Nguyen put it, “Everyone is coming to me on their very worst day. Everyone comes to me because they were hurt or their business was hurt or they’re afraid sometimes for their life, and it is difficult to hold that for the whole neighborhood.” 

Before becoming CID public safety coordinator Nguyen, age 28, worked in community and civic activism. In 2015 they co-founded the API Food Fight Club, an organizing coalition for Asian Pacific Islander youth, after 10 years of active political organizing. After years in public service, Nguyen plans to take a break, and perhaps work as a personal trainer. But they plan to return to community service work one day: “I think this is the kind of work that I was meant to do.”

A job posting to replace Nguyen for a year — and perhaps longer — will be posted this fall. The CID Public Safety Council is seeking to renew the position for more years.

In an interview with the International Examiner (edited for length and clarity), Nguyen reflected on over two years on the job, neighborhood break-ins and massage parlors, how real estate development intersects with public safety, and coming up with the right responses to homeless presence in the CID.

International Examiner: How has public safety changed in the CID in the years you’ve been observing this issue?

Sonny Nguyen: Overall across the city, we’re seeing a reduction in personal crimes like assaults, harassments — things where somebody’s attacking another person. But we are seeing a slight increase in property crimes like robberies, especially car thefts.

And I think we are getting better at having conversations around public safety. I’m trying to figure out how to say this diplomatically…. When I started this role, the neighborhood talked about homelessness as a public safety issue. Like, “homeless people are dangerous.” And I think we’ve done a great job on shifting that conversation to say that crime is a problem, some homeless people commit crimes, some housed people commit crimes. And we don’t want to address homelessness as crime, we want to address homelessness as the public health issue that it is, which may overlap sometimes with our public safety strategies. 

We will be releasing our data from the public safety survey soon. It was admittedly a smaller sample population than what we usually get. One interesting thing is that [in the survey] folks were most often worried about the health and safety of the homeless in the neighborhood. It is something that I’m very proud of this neighborhood for saying. I think this neighborhood has known for a while, but has had difficulty finding the vocabulary to say it, that arresting our way out of homelessness isn’t an option.

IE: Last spring, SPD raided massage parlors in the neighborhood. When it comes to massage parlors, what are the problems that you think need to be addressed?

SN: There is a lot of discourse right now around how the city is addressing sex work. SPD has recently moved to arresting sex workers, which is something that we haven’t done for a long time. I don’t think of that as a humane and realistic solution to the problems we’re trying to address. I think really focusing on working with federal and international law enforcement agencies to make sure that we are addressing human trafficking specifically. We know that some of the massage parlors in this neighborhood are involved in sex trafficking and labor trafficking in general. 

As for massage parlors and their relationship to crime, regardless of what’s going on in those businesses — trafficking etc. wage theft — from a public safety standpoint they are often in violation of ISRD or City of Seattle regulations that help make neighborhoods safer. When you cover up your windows, you create pedestrian canyons, where you’re walking through a neighborhood and you can’t see inside, no one can see outside. There’s no perceptibility or visibility, so if something happens to you, no one saw it. If something happens inside your business, no one can see it and help you. 

IE: What are the most pressing public safety issues you hear from people in general today in the neighborhood?

SN: I think business break-ins are happening a lot. I think that’s one I hear the most. I’m happy to say that, at least to me, it feels like the neighborhood is becoming a safer place at night, with more places open and active during the evenings. So at least for myself and a lot of folks I’ve spoken to, there’s less fear of being in the neighborhood at night. There’s still some, especially in Little Saigon and parts of the neighborhood that aren’t as active at night. But definitely business break-ins are a big one, and lighting — how dark and not visible a lot of our streets are, which is something SCIDpda is working a lot on right now.

IE: There’s been a narrative from real estate developers and others that bringing in more residents will make areas of the neighborhood safer. What is your take on this?

SN: I think it is true that more people in a neighborhood means a safer neighborhood. It means more eyes on the street, and opportunities to build more connections with folks. 

The idea that only through development can we get this neighborhood turned around is something I don’t believe — and don’t think that’s something anyone is claiming, but I think it’s a strategy that is unspoken but is being used. I think there are ways for us to get folks into the neighborhood that don’t rely on multi-million dollar condos. I think we could better utilize public art or activate our parks and alleys, or more events. I think there are a lot of ways that we can get more folks into the neighborhood that don’t rely on major development corporations doing it for us, especially without our input and feedback. 

A lot of times, unfortunately, developers are the only source of public realm development. When you build a new building, you have to fix the sidewalks, you have to put lights up. And without those developers, sometimes it takes forever to get those things to happen. So it is true that the developers will be, statistically, improving public safety in that area. But I think the question that a lot of folks are asking is, for whom?

IE: At a vigil for Donnie Chin you talked about how he inspired you, and that your job is carrying on some of what he did. Can you say more about how his example has inspired you?

SN: I think Donnie has inspired me with what I hope is a compassionate response to homelessness. He did see anyone in this neighborhood as belonging in this neighborhood — even when there are problem people. He knew that even if they lived under I-5, that that’s their home and that they are people in this neighborhood that deserve compassion. And sometimes compassion means accountability. 

He took care of everyone in this neighborhood. And so while it would be easier for me to just say, let’s develop strategies to push all the encampments out, keep them out, and arrest anyone who tries to build shelter in the neighborhood, that is not what I think Donnie would have done, and not what this role was created to do. This role was created to serve the entire neighborhood.  

Also now that I’ve announced that I’m leaving, I think I’ve been following his model of saying what I want to say. Donnie called BS when he saw BS. And while I’m not that brave yet, I feel like I’ve gotten better. I use less curse words than Donnie, but I think I’m learning how to take his brutal honesty with me.

IE: Do you have any insight into how the investigation into his murder is going? It’s been a while since SPD held an official community update about it.

SN: The Public Safety Council has asked them about doing another community update, but SPD got sharp feedback from the community when they [last] did one. It is not an efficient use of anyone’s time for SPD to gather us together to say that they’re still working on it. 

IE: Is that what SPD would keep saying if they held more community updates?

SN: Yeah, if they held an annual meeting every year, it would just be, ‘We’re still working on it,’ until it’s solved. They can’t give out details about a case. I will say that they are definitely still working on it. I know that Chief Best herself and the Mayor have had conversations with their staff about what needs to be done, and how to keep pushing on this and not to give up on this. 

And I know that the police department is in regular contact with Donnie’s sister, and she’s the one who needs the information most. While we all feel like we have a right to this information, it’s really his family that needs to know, and the rest of us can wait until either his family or the Police Department decides that we need to know.

IE: You said your Public Safety Coordinator job will likely change to include more high level policy work. What will this look like?

SN: So there’s a few things that are still outstanding in the [2016 Public Safety] Task Force recommendations. We’ve made great progress. We have reduced drug use or drug sales. We’ve completed or made significant progress on probably about 80 percent of the task force recommendations, and some of those outstanding things are very complicated measures to implement, like getting SPD to incentivize language proficiencies so that we can get more folks who speak Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese to be able to serve this neighborhood in the police department, in uniformed roles.

And that involves working with the Mayor’s office, the police chief and the police guild to create something very complicated that they would all three have to agree on with the City Council.

It’s something we addressed as a need, and the council supported, but it kind of stalled out with the very, very contentious [Police] Contract negotiations. We weren’t able to get in there in time to start that conversation.

So the role will be doing much more of that work, and less of the work that the BIA Clean and Safe Coordinator [Monica Ly] will be doing now, which is doing safety evaluations of businesses, or responding to crimes, or pulling evidence for crimes for the police officers from the camera systems, and things like that.  

IE: What is the future of the Public Safety Coordinator position once you leave?

SN: This role is funded for one more year, and my hope is that the Public Safety Council works with the city to figure out how to fund it forever. I think this role is absolutely necessary, and we know this because the City has implemented similar roles. Burien has a public safety coordinator with a slightly different model than the one that we’re using here. I know that SODO has asked for one, Belltown has asked, and I think Georgetown is getting one. I think every neighborhood deserves someone who is housed in the neighborhood by the neighborhood to be able to advocate for the neighborhood. And I do see it as the City’s responsibility to provide that. 

I think of my work as fulfilling the City’s mission even though I’m not a city employee. I’m helping them figure out how to build those relationships that they need to build to serve this neighborhood. And it’s on the City to make sure that they’re doing it right. So I hope that the funding stays forever, and I hope that more neighborhoods get them. 

A job posting for Nguyen’s CID Public Safety Coordinator position will be posted this fall. Those interested in learning more about the job can contact Jamie Lee, Director of Community Initiatives for SCIDpda ([email protected]) with questions.

Further reading:

CID Public Safety Coordinator Sonny Nguyen is ready to engage

Six arrested, 26 women removed in massage parlor prostitution busts in the CID

Little Saigon incorporated into Western police precinct

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