Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos stands in front as SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole addresses the audience at a June 23 public safety meeting to update the community on Donnie Chin’s murder investigation. • Photo by Isaac Liu
Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos stands in front as SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole addresses the audience at a June 23 public safety meeting to update the community on Donnie Chin’s murder investigation. • Photo by Isaac Liu

At a public meeting organized by Washington State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos and International District Emergency Center (IDEC) on June 23, almost a year after the unsolved murder of community leader Donnie Chin, the Seattle Police Department said that it is closer than it has ever been to making an arrest regarding the murder investigation.

The meeting—a follow up to a similar public safety meeting last November with the purpose of encouraging communication between SPD and the community about the murder investigation—drew about 100 Chinatown-International District (CID) community members to the Nagomi Tea House. They were joined by SPD Chief of Police Kathleen O’Toole (who had not made it to the previous meeting), City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, as well as Chin’s family.

In her opening remarks, Santos said that 11 months after Donnie’s murder the community has not been able to heal because of the lack of answers provided by SPD. Afterwards, O’Toole gave an update on the investigation but emphasized the importance of holding back most of the information to avoid jeopardizing the case.

“We are in a much better place than day one, and in  a better place since November,” O’Toole said. The two lead detectives in this case knew Donnie for a long time and are “representatives of the API community,” she added.

O’Toole said that even though the SPD had yet to have a suspect in custody, it had “very good leads” and that the case is “materializing.”

O’Toole said that there will be more police officers on bikes patrolling the CID in the near future. Those officers will be some of the 200 new officers Mayor Ed Murray said Seattle is hiring during his annual State of the City address in February.

When the meeting turned into a Q&A session, frustration ran high not only toward the investigation and the SPD, but also regarding the issue of homelessness in the CID and its impact on residents, businesses, and service providers.

Karen Yoshitomi, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington, read aloud a letter describing her disappointment toward the mayor  and the lack of attention paid by Seattle’s leaders on the unique challenges that the neighborhood has been facing.

“Last week I attended a ceremony for the renaming of a park in the Seattle Chinatown International District to the Donnie Chin International Children’s Park,” Yoshitomi said, reading from the letter. “I made the effort to attend because I was hoping that Mayor Murray would acknowledge why the renaming of the park was so important. If it’s possible to feel hope leave your body, then that was surely what I felt after the mayor’s brief speech on that day. One sentence about how Donnie died. Worse, not one word about his life’s work, what Donnie Chin dedicated his entire life to, and ultimately died for: public safety in the SCID.”

Teresita Batayola said that employees at International Community Health Services (ICHS), where she is the chief executive officer, were becoming too afraid for their safety to come to work.

Terry Nicholas of The American Legion’s Cathay Post #186 shared the same sentiment on the increasing sense of danger in the neighborhood.

“The neighborhood’s now become the wild wild west,” Nicholas said. “We’re all worried about being hit by a stray bullet down here, young people at night running up and down the streets.”

Some attributed to the rising crime rate and decreasing sense of safety of the neighborhood to the hole left in the community since Chin’s death. Chin had been responding to emergencies around the community since the late ’60s—first under the name Asians for Unity Emergency Squad and later International District Emergency Center—in response to the lack of resources provided by the city to address public safety in the neighborhood.

During the Q&A session, Batayola said that having increased police presence was not enough. “There are so many public safety issues in our community. [There’s] a big hole that Donnie left because he was so vigilant in terms of not letting things pile up and get to this crisis,” Batayola said. “The impact of losing him is so much bigger.”

Community leader “Uncle” Bob Santos and several others stressed the importance of not only the need for police visibility in the neighborhood, but for O’Toole and police officers to make efforts to get to know the community members better. “Uncle” Bob recalled seeing some officers in Eastern Café who did not even make eye contact with him. Other comments shared at the meeting reiterated the community’s general lack of trust toward the SPD, which O’Toole said she hoped to fix.

“It’s a work in progress, thank you for your patience,” O’Toole said. But we hope that over time, you’ll know that our hearts are in the right place and we’ll continue to work with you to solve this case and to make this neighborhood safer and more vibrant.”

As the meeting drew to a close, Rep. Santos said that the responsibility to foster a better relationship between the SPD and the CID community—such as organizing meetings like this one—should have fallen on the SPD. She also suggested that the SPD consider supporting IDEC, Donnie Chin’s legacy, by allocating money from its budget toward the organization.

The meeting ended about 20 minutes earlier than scheduled, and Rep. Santos invited all of the elected officials in the room to tour some parts of the neighborhood to see with their own eyes the extent of the homelessness problem.  

Slideshow photos by Isaac Liu:

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