Federal Way community defends violence prevention recommendations

Evan Cook, middle, discusses the benefit of giving opportunities to youth to prevent gun violence. Courtesy of YouTube

Evan Cook looked out across the council chambers.

He had an audience.

“When I moved to Federal Way, Washington, when I was 14 years old, I probably could have used a couple of resources that we offer now, but I was able to be one of those statistics that made it out on the positive side — going to college and graduating and coming back to my community to serve,” he said.

Cook worries about the youth who are going down the wrong path.

“Too many doors have been closed to them, doors I didn’t even know existed, doors that were open to other people, but doors that were closed to me, and doors that are closed to a lot of people that look like me and look like them for whatever reason.” Cook said.

Cook is now part of the Multi-Service Center’s Positive Outcomes Program. POP helps youth ages 12 to 24 find resources, graduate high school, enroll in college, get a job and participate in positive activities. He was among many who spoke Tuesday night at the council’s special meeting addressing the Violence Prevention Coalition steering committee’s 10 recommendations for preventing youth violence.

Cook thinks the city not only needs to create opportunities and open doors for teenagers and young adults, he wants city officials to have an “open mind and open ear” to innovative strategies from Federal Way’s youth.

“They’re letting us know, ‘Hey, maybe they need somewhere to work out at 5:30 in the morning or somewhere that maybe can stay open until midnight where they can go play basketball because it’s better than hanging around Taco Bell on 348th,” he said, referring to the location 16-year-old Wesley Gennings was murdered in February 2016.

He said the right steps are being taken, but reminded the council to continue to be “centered on opportunities,” the city’s new tagline, for everyone in this community.

And after about six months of work, the Violence Prevention Coalition steering committee’s recommendations has touched on several areas in which the community could improve.

Committee President Doug Baxter explained the 14-member group surveyed 387 people on their ideas about violent crime in Federal Way, how they felt about their safety, what could be done to improve and how they could contribute.

“A lot of the times, people make knee-jerk reactions and you want to think about what’s going to work right now instead of talking to the rest of the community,” Baxter said. “We’re only 14 people, but we talked to 400 people throughout our community. As we heard from the community and the ideas that came out of the coalition, they were a lot better than what I came up with on my own.”

Baxter currently works as the violence prevention coordinator for CHI Franciscan Health.

The idea of a violence prevention committee first emerged in February 2016 after the murder of 16-year-old Wesley Gennings. That idea took on increased urgency last May after three people were murdered in 48 hours in Federal Way. The City Council approved the creation of the committee shortly thereafter. A preliminary coalition meeting, held last June, collected early ideas from about 60 attendees and discussed potential solutions for the then-unselected steering committee. The committee’s first meeting was in August and subsequent efforts to reach out the community, such as through a public meeting and survey, have taken place throughout the last six months.

Recommendations

  1. Support a community-centered bystander awareness project
  2. Provide an incentive to city employees and residents to become volunteer and become mentors
  3. Support the creation and expansion of social/emotional learning to more schools, after school programs and other youth organizations
  4. Explore opening a “one-stop” community resource center for youth and young adults
  5. Support a comprehensive job training program for youth
  6. Add more after-school programs in the city
  7. Institute restorative justice practices as a city initiative to reduce crime and violence
  8. Incentivize and encourage residents use gun safe and lock up firearms
  9. Expand youth substance use treatment in Federal Way to reduce barriers (there are currently none serving youth in the city)
  10. Dedicate city staff time or create a position to execute the recommendations brought by the Violence Prevention Coalition steering committee, as well as identify additional partnerships and recommendations

Is it enough?

Some people, however, believe the city is not being aggressive enough in the fight against crime and preventing violence in the community.

Longtime Federal Way resident Jim Stiles said the committee had good intentions but felt two things were missing from the conversation: personal and community responsibility.

“We’re not talking about somebody acting out and someone breaking windows at their local school or punctured tires in a parking lot. We’re talking about people being shot and killed, stabbed and killed over who made more money last year,” Stiles said, referring to a possible motive for a recent Federal Way murder. “Think about that for a minute. How did we get to a place where people shoot each other, stab each other or beat each other to death over who’s making the most cash this year?”

Stiles also questioned whether “midnight basketball leagues” and other programs would actually work.

Six people, including the mayor, were quick to respond to Stiles.

Dustin Morrison, a Federal Way Public Schools student, said he lost four friends last year due to gun violence and that having programs with strong male mentors, a recommendation from the committee, will have a huge impact in teaching youth right from wrong, especially for those like himself who haven’t had fathers growing up.

Mike Niksich, president of the Todd Beamer Booster Club, said giving youth opportunities to do positive things is exactly how teens and young adults will learn personal responsibility. He said there aren’t enough after-school options for students as there are “scores and scores of high school kids sitting in the hallways looking for something to do.” Once 4 p.m. rolls around, he said, club teams “with the money” get to use the facilities.

“A lot of bad things happen when you go home and there’s nobody home,” Niksich said, referring to youth. “And if 4 p.m. is not cutting it, if it’s 6 p.m., midnight, so be it. Let’s find a way to make those changes.”

Anteneh Tebeje, a 19-year-old Federal Way High School graduate, agreed with Niksich in that providing “midnight basketball programs” is “mandatory.”

“I go to these basketball events with people I know personally, and if we don’t have time where we can get together and be around positive energy, what else are they going to be doing?” he said. “I don’t want to see another person die.”

Next steps

Although the committee is done with their work – providing recommendations to prevent youth violence – it’s now up the to the city to implement them.

“We’ll have to take a step back,” Mayor Jim Ferrell said. “I’ll probably have Yarden Weidenfeld, my senior policy adviser, take a very studied look at these recommendations and we’ll look for ways [to go] about implementation.”

Ferrell said the city needs to be concerned with cost but said “there is no more important priority than the safety of the people in our community, especially our youth.”

“Some of them do have budget implications, some of them are policy that can easily be woven into our operations,” he said, adding that the city also has the chance to take part of an idea.

Baxter said he’s not sure what the next steps are, but that the committee might be able to work with a staff member – upon city approval – on an ad-hoc basis in the future.

“We’re all in it and we all want to see it be successful,” he said.

In reflecting on the past year since the idea for the committee arose, Baxter said each murder or assault caused him to question, “What could have been done to prevent that from happening a year ago, two years ago?”

The committee looked at the Public Health pyramid, in addition to community feedback, when identiying how the recommendations would serve primary, secondary and tertiary prevention.

Primary prevention includes strategies that are targeted for the entire population, secondary touches on those who need targeted strategies to prevent problems from escalating, and tertiary prevention involves treatment and rehabilitation to stop those already committing violent crime.

“Quite often, police are dealing with things at the extreme end,” Police Chief Andy Hwang, a member of the committee, said. “We’re investigating and, by that time, that’s not what we’re looking for here. We have good investigators and police officers who can do that kind of work, but I think prevention and working together to build a healthier community is going to take all the stakeholders, so I’m very encouraged by this discussion. I think it is very positive.”

To learn more about the Violence Prevention Coaltion steering committee’s recommendations for preventing youth violence and the work that was done, read their final report here: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3673985/FWVPC-Report.pdf

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