Feds Seize Guns and Drugs in White Center -- Is Area's Unincorporated Status Causing Crime?

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Over the past three months, local and federal law-enforcement agencies arrested 53 people, confiscated 68 firearms, and seized a combined 63 pounds of meth, cocaine, and crack in White Center. The operation was capped by a press conference Friday morning at which the authorities showed off their haul and vowed that in the future they will have "zero tolerance for those who terrorize and hold this community hostage," as the ATF's Kelvin Crenshaw told the crowd of reporters and a smattering of neighborhood residents gathered at Steve Cox Memorial Park.

Tonight, many of those same law-enforcement officials will return to White Center to meet with community leaders and organize future crime prevention and outreach initiatives. But both sides question whether things will change as long as the "area of lawlessness" remains part of unincorporated King County.

Sandwiched between West Seattle and Burien, White Center has long attracted street gangs and dope peddlers. Of the 50-plus individuals arrested in the latest sweep -- dubbed "Operation Center of Attention" by the ATF's violent gang task force -- virtually all the suspects are Hispanic gang members charged with delivery of cocaine or meth, or being felons in possession of a firearm. Authorities raided two local businesses (reportedly Papa's Pub and Grill and DK's Asian Restaurant) that were allegedly hubs for criminal activity.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg lamented how easy it was for informants and undercover detectives to acquire guns, describing how in some instances the weapons were used as currency in drug deals. The arsenal on display Friday was impressive, including everything from hunting rifles and shotguns to a sawed-off cherry-red AK-47 and a gold-plated .45 pistol that each looked as though they could have come from Moammar Gadhafi's personal collection.

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Photo by Keegan Hamilton
The ATF's Kelvin Crenshaw, flanked by an assortment of law-enforcement officials and confiscated drugs and guns in White Center.
Crenshaw, the special agent in charge of the ATF's Seattle outpost, said that a meeting will take place tonight at 7 p.m. at the Jim Wiley Community Center to "bring to bear resources to ensure that what fills the gap [after these arrests] is something positive for White Center." Attendees will include Satterberg, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and King County Councilman Joe McDermott.

"So much of law enforcement is reactive," Crenshaw told Seattle Weekly after the Friday press conference. "The other leg of the stool is the prevention and treatment."

But several of those in attendance Friday worried that the situation would be difficult to change given White Center's place in unincorporated King County. The area is patrolled by King County sheriffs, but there are no elected officials responsible for White Center other than the King County Council.

Thomas Bates, an executive assistant with the Western Washington U.S. Attorney's Office, says a variety of "quasi-government organizations" have formed to fill the gap, including the Highline Unincorporated Area Council and the White Center Delridge Safety Coaltion, but the area is often an afterthought.

"There's often issues about who to call," Bates says, "just all sorts of day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts issues you have with a patchwork of governance. It's my understanding that contributes to the ongoing challenges."

That sentiment was echoed by Lakionsha Healy, the chairman of the Safety Coalition. "People come here to sell drugs and do their dirt," she said. "They know you can get away with anything you want."

Healy's father, pastor Timothy Rambo of White Center-based Rambo Ministries, asked the U.S. Attorney as she fielded questions about the operation how the community could prevent the crime problem from again spiraling out of control. Durkan replied that stronger partnerships between organizations such as his and law-enforcement officials will be key going forward.

Seemingly unsatisfied, Rambo later called White Center an "area of lawlessness" and speculated that it would be difficult to implement meaningful change without incorporation or annexation by one of its neighbors. It's unlikely, however, that either scenario will happen anytime soon. Both are months-long processes that require significant time and resources.

As we reported back in January, Seattle wants to put White Center on a "path" to annexation and split the area with Burien, but that path comes at an impossibly steep cost at a time when the city already short on disposable cash. The annexation area would reportedly cost Seattle $16 million more to run each year than it would generate in tax revenue, and 'one-time' expenses of annexation would total an additional $91 million.

With that in mind, Rambo said the meeting tonight with King County officials will be key in changing the status quo.

"We may fall through the gaps sometimes," the Pastor says. "But we need to be united as a community and figure out a way to stop this violence."

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