In the middle of March on one of Seattle’s first warm days of the year, Devin Cabanilla was in the International District’s Hing Hay Park selling Girl Scout cookies with his school-aged daughter. As a customer was paying, Cabanilla said a man came up to them and started screaming vulgar insults.
The man allegedly threatened and intimidated Cabanilla and his daughter for fifteen minutes. Cabanilla said he told his frightened daughter to get behind him as he started calling 911.
The first thing Cabanilla told the dispatcher was that it was urgent. “I was like, ‘I’m under assault, I’m being assaulted,’” Cabanilla said. The dispatcher told Cabanilla that an officer would come by. After 20 minutes had passed, no officers came. In that period, the man Cabanilla was calling about had left and then returned.
“I had to start telling my daughter … if something happens to me, run to my office or run into a restaurant because the police aren’t there,” Cabanilla said. When the man saw Cabanilla on the phone calling 911 for a second time, the man turned and started walking away again, and Cabanilla hung up.
By Cabanilla’s account, 30 more minutes passed before a police car arrived—but no one in the car stopped to make contact with him or even roll down the window.
The next day, Cabanilla, who works at the Hing Hay Coworks office workspace as a cultural and business consultant for local organizations, went to a public safety meeting in the neighborhood. A police officer there told him the man who had yelled at him and his daughter was known to the police, and was in transitional housing.
Cabanilla said he is still shaken by the incident weeks later and bothered by how the police responded.
“I’m not mad at the guy, because he’s obviously crazy, but my frustration is really just the lack of response and help from the police,” Cabanilla said. “My concern is, I needed help and [the police] didn’t show up and I didn’t get any follow up or acknowledgement about it.”
Concern about slow responses to 911 calls was echoed in an April 11 letter to Mayor Ed Murray, signed by community leaders and business owners in the neighborhood. The letter expressed longstanding concerns with public safety in the neighborhood, and pointed to Cabanilla’s experience as just one example of a neighborhood in need of public safety fixes.
“Our public safety situation continues to deteriorate,” said the letter, which was signed by Pradeepta Upadhyay (InterIm CDA), Teresita Batayola (International Community Health Services), Bob Santos (InterIm CDA), Jeffery Hattori (Keiro Northwest), Dorothy Wong (Chinese Information and Service Center), Elaine Ishihara (APICAT for Healthy Communities), Diane Narasaki (Asian Counseling and Referral Service), Dicky Mar (International District Emergency Center), Harry Chin (Tai Tung and Four Seas Restaurant), Darlene (Phnom Penh Restaurant).
In the letter, community members expressed concern about unregulated tent encampments in places like Kobe Terrace Park, under I-5 on Jackson Street, King Street, and Dearborn Street; trash piling up; and a lack of quick response to 911 calls.
Cabanilla said that a sergeant from the local precinct went back over the tape of his 911 call and discovered that it had been marked as a disturbance, rather than an assault—hence the slower response.
Some community members believe there’s another important problem with 911 calls.
Santos said that many people in the neighborhood won’t call 911 even if they see something happening because it can be a more difficult process for some residents.
“If you’re limited English speaking or non-English speaking, you can’t understand what the operator is saying because the questions come so quick,” he said. “Our residents, they get frustrated when they do call 911 because they’re inundated by all the questions that the operator has, so it’s sort of understandable that when our residents see something happening on the street, they don’t call 911 anymore, they think it’s just a waste of time.”
Activist Alan Sugiyama said SPD has the wrong idea about the neighborhood due to residents’ not bothering to call 911. Sugiyama attributes this to the large population of elderly, limited-English speaking people, and recent immigrants who may have problems trusting police due to their experiences with police in their countries of origin.
Sugiyama said he would like to see ongoing police presence in the neighborhood working closely with the community, as well as further economic development, lighting and other fixes that would improve public safety. He also noted that there’s very little Asian presence at the command level in the police department and other city departments.
“This is not a new issue,” Sugiyama said. “The International District was always an area that had issues—new immigrants coming in, homeless coming in, and knuckleheads coming in. … When I was growing up it was a little safer in that it was more of a neighborhood.”
Both Sugiyama and Santos remember an ID that they said used to feel safer, despite the presence of some Chinese and Filipino gangs that have since moved away.
By the 1990s, Santos said he noticed a decrease in police patrols in the neighborhood.
“We had foot patrol, everyone knew who they were,” Santos said. “The officers knew who we were, they worked with Donnie Chin there at the [International District] Emergency Center. They became part of the community, and you don’t see that now. I go down to the Eastern Cafe once or twice a week, and I’ve seen about six or eight police officers that meet there for coffee. That’s a good idea but … when they come in, they don’t make eye contact with anybody in the cafe. They’re there. Maybe someone told them to be there. But they’re there … but they’re not.”
“I find that sort of snobbish,” he added.