Photo of Rainier Beach Safeway parking lot

Community Safety Requires All Of Us: Rainier Beach Safeway Update

by Mark Van Streefkerk

In January, the Rainier Beach Safeway parking lot saw several shootings — including one incident in which two people sustained non-life threatening injuries. In response, the community organized a series of Town Hall meetings, parking lot improvements, and an organically-driven “Action Team” that included Safeway employees, Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC), Southeast Network Safe Passage at the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club, and Urban Family. Since then, business owners say the area is safer, with no reported incidents of violence to date. 

The Emerald first reported on the multifaceted approach to finding solutions to ending violence in the area in February, after the first of two Town Halls hosted by Rainier Avenue Radio founder Tony Benton via Zoom on Feb. 3. The second Town Hall occurred on Feb. 17, and included King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, Seattle City Council President Lorena González, the respective owners of Rainier Beach Liquor & Wine and King Donuts, a representative from the Seattle Police Department, and Magalie LaFont, the District Asset Protection Manager for Albertsons/Safeway.

In the time between the two Town Halls, Safeway installed increased parking lot lighting, tire stops, and a surveillance trailer. Gregory Davis, Managing Strategist of RBAC, said that while the organization, along with SE Network Safe Passage “picked up more energy in the conversation with Safeway,” in the time between the two Town Halls, the changes have primarily been the result of their trusted ongoing relationships. SE Network Program Director Ricole Jones in particular has been advocating for tire stops for months.

Sara Osborne, External Affairs Director of Albertsons/Safeway, explained that the surveillance trailers are rented from a private company, and have been installed in parking lots of five stores where they saw a “significant increase in violent criminal activity outside of our stores.” The decision to pilot their use was made last winter. “They were finally (and coincidentally) installed around the time of the Town Hall. However, our conversations with community orgs led to our realization that better lighting and tire stops could be preventative measures as well,” Osborne said. 

Just as important as physical changes to the parking lot are other ongoing efforts: violence interruption, Community Healing Space (CHS) activation — started last June by Marty Jackson, Executive Director of SE Network — and the work of RBAC, which has been active in the area since 2015. RBAC’s Corner Greeters program features youth who staff information tables, conduct surveys on safety, keep the area clean, and operate social media postings via FreedomNet. RBAC activates two community spaces each week, one at the Rainier Beach Safeway, and the second rotating between four other hotspots.

The SE Network Safe Passage is a non-arrest intervention model, with practitioners of violence interruption known as Circle Keepers. Every Friday, CHS activates the Rainier Beach Safeway parking lot from 3-6 p.m., followed by Heal Our Hood community safety efforts from 6 to 10 p.m. “The purpose of CHS Activation is to change the feel of the parking lot by creating an environment of healing and safe space for community members to grieve and know that their community cares for them,” Jones explained. “We are also addressing food insecurity by feeding the community with hot meals purchased from Black and Brown vendors, and we hold Peace/Healing Circles.”

SE Network also provides what Jones called the important “back office work” that doesn’t get talked about much, but is nonetheless vital to disrupting violence. This includes case management, job readiness and employment services, youth development programming, and school and court advocacy.

At The People’s Town Hall on March 25, with Action Team organizations in attendance, as well as Zahilay and Morales, further community safety strategy effectiveness was discussed, including a pilot program “that would address some of the incidents that occur that can be violent and escalate into something more,” said Jackson. “That’s what we’re working on now.” 

As an example of the intervention method, Jackson remembered a recent escalating confrontation between a Safeway customer and the store’s security staff. Seeing that the customer wasn’t responsive to security, the Safe Passage team intervened to deescalate the customer and assist security. The situation was resolved, and the store’s security personnel thanked the Safe Passage team for stepping in. Jackson said Safe Passage teams are trained to intervene at the moment where ideally, there is the least amount of conflict. “Those are the kind of things that end up happening more often than not,” she explained. “[It’s] what people don’t think about regularly. You just don’t automatically think about those situations turning into a shooting. Everything starts somewhere.”

Since the series of Town Halls, and additions of parking lot lights and tire stops, both Rainier Beach Liquor & Wine and King Donuts, two businesses that share the parking lot, have reported noticeable improvements. “We’ve seen a lot of change,” said Esther Zeraburk, an employee of the liquor store. “Everything looks good and safe now. The parking lot is getting quieter than it used to be.”

Zeraburk credits the tire stops with preventing disruptive driving in the parking lot, and the presence of the SE Network and RBAC for taking care of the area. Hong Chhuor, who owns King Donuts with his family, said the increased lighting makes a big difference in changing the vibe of the parking lot, as well as Safe Passage’s presence on Friday night in particular. “They’ve activated the space and turned it into an intentional community gathering space. They’ll have music and food and beverages under a tent. People who are hanging out, activating the space and making it [more] like a community gathering spot,” Chhuor said. 

He said that the only community organization that had reached out to King Donuts so far was RBAC. Though Chhuor admitted he hadn’t made it a point to reach out to elected representatives, he wished City and County councilmembers would find better ways to support and listen to small businesses in Rainier Valley. Despite that caveat, Chhuor said that parking lot improvements and the work of RBAC and Safe Passage means the area is “much more well-cared for,” and if community efforts continue, “it’s going to only continue the trend that we’re seeing now, of a lot less violent activity taking place there.”

Both Chhuor and Davis pointed out the underlying issue is that the neighborhood has been historically disinvested in for decades. “A situation not of [our] making but one [we] are committed to solving,” Davis said.

Davis said Zahilay and Morales have committed to lobbying for more resources for the Action Team, and hopes to engage Safeway at its corporate level to invest in violence prevention resources.

Until then, it’s the commitment of groups like RBAC and Safe Passage that continue building a foundation of community safety. “We’re in a space where everyone needs to contribute in order for this to continue,” Jackson said. “I think it’s important to know that violent crime is down in the Rainier Beach neighborhood . . . We’re down there when it’s not popular. We’re doing this together.”

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

📸 Featured Image: The Rainier Beach Safeway, where a community-based action team has collaborated to help halt violent incidents in the store’s parking lot. Photo by Alex Garland.

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