by Heidi Tuttle
Van Asselt Community Center serves an ethnically diverse community that draws much of its youth/teen population from nearby New Holly. The renovated facility re-opened in 2007, more than doubling the size of the original center. The expansion allowed for a large multi-purpose room, commercial kitchen, sports gym, and several activity rooms.
The facility also hosts one of Seattle’s Late Night programs on Friday nights from 7-midnight. In 1989 Late Night was created as a response to youth violence and a growing gang problem in Seattle. The Late-Night Recreation Program, under the leadership of Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Citywide Young Adults program, is open to all youth ages 13-19. The program offers a safe place to engage in activities such as basketball, a teen activity room, as well as come together and share a free meal.
Two uniformed officers are placed at each community center. Officers are there to interact with the youth, build trust and have positive encounters, as well as support the Community Center staff.
Last year I met with a group of parents from the New Holly community to ask what changes they would like to see in their neighborhood. Many of the parents brought up concerns about Late Night at Van Asselt. Issues such as kids cussing, fighting, lack of supervision, and disinterested staff and SPD officers, dominated the conversation.
In October, just a few weeks after my conversation with the parents, I received word that the Van Asselt Late Night program had been shut down. Multiple factors contributed to this decision and unfortunately, the result left the youth without this valuable resource.
Late Night was originally created to provide a safe gathering place for the youth and keep them active during hours when statistics showed they were more likely to commit, or be victims of, crime.
After a few weeks of not hearing anything about the program, I contacted Van Asselt, Seattle Parks, and SPD Outreach to see what needed to be done to get the program started back up. The general consensus was, staffing needed to be different, and the support from SPD needed to change.
I saw this as an opportunity to not only support the needs of the community, but an opportunity to get officers involved in Late Night, who had a vested interest in building relationships with the youth and not just looking for overtime.
The youth that attend the community center historically do not like or trust the police. Figuring out ways to interrupt that narrative in a thoughtful and deliberate way was the challenge. I have always believed that to have success with our youth we as a community must offer structure, consistency, and predictability.
When the Van Asselt kids come to Late Night they should see the same group of officers working each Friday. These officers should know the kids by name, engage in conversations, and be willing to develop trusting relationships. These officers should also work in the community so they might see the kids during the week instead of just Friday nights.
In February of this year, Van Asselt Community Center brought on a new Manager, Temesgen Habte, who transferred from Yesler Community Center. Temesgen has worked for the Parks Department since 2016 and has a strong, positive history working with the community and specifically the youth.
I sat down with Temesgen to find out how SPD could support him as he took over the community center, and to explain what my vision was for SPD’s participation in Late Night.
I asked Temesgen how he felt the participation of SPD officers working Late Night could benefit the teens and the community. He stated, “It will improve youth and community relationships with police and vice versa. It will allow both community members and police to engage from a different starting point, and get to know each other as people. Normally when people have contact with officers, it’s in an emergency situation, a specific problem needing to be solved. One of our goals is for the relationships developed in the program to spread to the larger community so that when emergencies do arise, everyone begins from a more positive starting point than they did before. Having police will allow parents to feel safe sending their children to participate in our programs. And participating in our programs means the youth have less opportunities to engage in unsafe activities.”
I began looking for officers that would be interested in investing their time in the Van Asselt Late Night program. Ofc. Quinton Cooper was one of the first officers I spoke to because he has worked at Rainier Community Center Late Night. He commented on the importance of officer participation, “I strongly believe officer interaction with the youth at Van Asselt will build trust on both sides. Having personally grown up in a very similar environment as many of the youth who attend late night, I know that in order to understand one another and begin to build that trust, it’s important to have interactions outside of the usual ‘police call’. I’ve come across several of the youth from late night, outside of late night, who have recognized me and were very open to saying hello, which is typically not the case. It is my opinion that with time and effort on both sides, the relationship between youth in our community and police will thrive greatly.”
Late Night officially opened again on February 16th. I arrived at Van Asselt that first Friday night feeling nervous, yet hopeful. I stood at the welcome counter as kids filtered in. None of them would make eye contact as they signed in and entered the gym. After about an hour one of the teens came back to the counter and asked Temesgen why the police were down in the gym area. Temesgen asked why he didn’t just ask me since I was standing a foot away. The answer surprised me. The young man stated, “My mom said I was never allowed to look at or speak to the police.” After hearing this I realized how much work needed to be done.
It has been five weeks since Van Asselt Late Night has reopened, and I can say the program is going strong. Officers are interacting positively with the kids and the response from officers, youth, and Late Night staff has been very encouraging. Needless to say, officers are being met with more eye contact, engaging in conversations with the youth, and participating in basketball. “It’s been so nice to have the time to interact with the youth and show them who we are behind the uniform,” a sentiment shared by Ofc. Yusuf Jibril, after working Late Night at Van Asselt.
With the help of parents, volunteers, and additional SPD support, we hope to be implementing programming such as Cooking with The Cops, Crafts with the Cops, boxing, visiting artists, and Detective Cookie’s Chess Club. We would like to encourage and support the young women in the community to participate in Late Night as well.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have asked some of the community parents if they would be willing to volunteer their time to assist with programming for the youth. There was an overwhelming yes. The idea that improvements and positive changes happen when the community works together, is invaluable.
Heidi Tuttle is a member of the Seattle Police Department’s South Precinct Community Police Team