Little Saigon has long been considered a part of the Chinatown International District (CID), but until recently, crime and public safety in the neighborhood were the responsibility of a different police precinct than the rest of the CID. In 1964, 20 years before the Vietnamese American cultural hub earned its nickname, Interstate 5 became the official boundary between the East and West police precincts, isolating what would become Little Saigon from the rest of the neighborhood.
In response to public safety concerns and decades of community activism, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) recently announced it would incorporate Little Saigon into the Western Precinct, creating a single police beat encompassing the entire CID. As of January 24, Little Saigon and the CID are part of the same police beat, now about 50 percent larger.
“I think for a long time the city relied on Donnie Chin to do the city’s job of protecting the neighborhood,” said CID public safety coordinator Sonny Nguyen. For decades, Chin was a keeper of public safety in the CID, responding to thousands of emergencies and founding the International District Emergency Center (IDEC).
Chin’s longtime friend Dean Wong described him as the neighborhood’s Batman. Chin was shot to death in the summer of 2015 after responding to what police say was a gang-related gun fight.
“When Donnie was killed, people got together and worked to tell the city, ‘this is your fault. You shouldn’t have been letting a 50-something, 60-year old man be fighting crime, you should be serving the neighborhood better.’” Nguyen said, “The city kind of realized that they should have put him out of work; they should have been doing so well that he didn’t have to do what he was doing. So from that moment, the city took a very meaningful interest in public safety in the neighborhood.”
To invigorate police strategies in the CID, the SPD collaborated with local community members to form the CID Public Safety Task Force, whose June 2016 report recommended incorporating Little Saigon to better track crimes, address safety concerns and reunite the neighborhood.
“We don’t like breaking up neighborhoods,” said SPD detective Patrick Michaud. “Seattle is a neighborhood-centric city. There are a few examples where it is broken through the middle of a neighborhood, but again that’s more because of physical boundaries and the inability of officers to get from one side of that boundary to the other in a responsible amount of time.”
Natural barriers like I-5 and Lake Union can prevent officers from responding quickly to an emergency, so the SPD tries to draw precinct and beat lines along these boundaries. I-5 will cut directly through the new CID beat, leaving police with only three underpasses – Yesler St., S. Jackson St. and S. Dearborn St. – to access Little Saigon. Some residents are concerned these bottlenecks could increase response times throughout the CID, but the SPD is confident response times will remain stable.
“There’s a lot going on, it’s not as simple as changing where the line goes,” Michaud said. “The reason why it took so long to go through this whole process – we started this survey way back in 2016 looking at this – we had to be absolutely sure it wasn’t going to negatively affect the neighborhood.”
The new beat is larger than the old one, so the SPD plans to assign three to five additional officers to patrol the neighborhood, according to Vicky Li, SPD outreach specialist for the CID. Only one officer has been added to the beat so far and Li said more will be added as police cadets enter the force. It has not yet been determined if these rookie officers will be placed directly in the CID beat or if they’ll transfer more experienced officers.
Some community members hoped the East Precinct officers who previously patrolled Little Saigon and built familiarity with the community would be transferred to this new, expanded CID beat. Li said at a recent meeting hosted by InterIm Community Development Association that they did not plan to move these officers because the only way for officers to move precincts is if they volunteer to do so. No officers have volunteered to move into the new West precinct beat yet, according to Li.
The SPD is not yet sure if any officers patrolling Little Saigon will speak Vietnamese or other languages commonly spoken in the neighborhood. Officers do have access to a translating phone service for CID citizens that would prefer to speak in their native tongue.
According to the 2016 CID Public Safety Survey, CID residents do not have high confidence in the SPD’s ability to ensure public safety, with 72 percent of young people and 58 percent of elderly people disagreeing on some level with the statement “police keep the CID safe.”
“I think that’s something we have to work at to bridge that gap by going back and having our community outreach people get out there and figure out why there is that belief in our services,” Michaud said.
Local SPD officers will be hosting their recurring “Coffee with A Cop” on February 13 from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Eastern Cafe, where they’ll be discussing the new beat and meeting community members.
“They’re spending just as much time in the neighborhood as a lot of the business owners and folks here so it’s important we establish that relationship,” Nguyen said.