Pockets of crime still cause trouble on South Tacoma Way

October 12, 2007 

It’s shortly after 9 p.m. on a summer Friday and Tacoma police officer Daniel Hensley stops his cruiser in front of the parking lot of the now-closed nightclub Area 151on the 3500 block of South Tacoma Way. The lot is jammed with young people and Hensley wants to check it out.

A man emerges from the crowd and tells the officer a rap-music video is being filmed and that the people are extras. Satisfied, Hensley drives off. But as he does he says he won’t be surprised if there’s trouble at this spot before the night is over.

“They used to pack this parking lot almost to the point where you couldn’t move in here,” he says. “There would be shootings and fights. We had off-duty officers working here, but even they couldn’t control what was going on. Typically at closing time they were calling for backup to clear the parking lot.”

This night, he has read the situation exactly right.

‘A HUB OF ACTIVITY’

A 17-year police veteran, Hensley, 44, has patrolled South Tacoma Way and its surrounding neighborhoods for a dozen years.

A year ago he was assigned to the city’s North End. He didn’t like it there. Too quiet.

“I specifically asked to come back,” he says.

Tacoma police Lt. Mike Ake, who commands the sector that includes South Tacoma Way, says he understood why Hensley requested the transfer back to South Tacoma Way.

“He picked a place where he doesn’t have to worry about not being busy,” says Ake, who has worked with Hensley throughout his career.

A compactly built man with a trim gray mustache, Hensley likes to be where the action is. And South Tacoma Way is “a hub of activity,” he says.

With the radio in his cruiser chattering in the background, Hensley talks about the gritty realities of being a street cop on the graveyard shift on South Tacoma Way.

Drug dealing is a significant problem in the area, Hensley says. When he was first assigned to the street, crack cocaine was king. That changed about nine years ago.

“Meth is the big thing these days,” he says.

Prostitution used to be a significant problem on the street, but in the last couple of years that’s become less true, he says.

Hensley credits the court program S.O.A.P, which stands for Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution, with reducing the sex trade in the area.

“People who have been convicted of prostitution get a court order placed on them by the Tacoma Municipal Court, and basically that order says, ‘You cannot be there anymore. And if you’re there, for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter, you get arrested and taken to jail.’”

Did the get-tough approach work?

“It’s almost dried up,” Hensley says of prostitution on the thoroughfare. But, he acknowledges, the business wasn’t eradicated, it just moved away. He says many of the prostitutes now ply their trade on Pacific Avenue.

‘EVERYBODY SCATTERED’

At around 11:30 Hensley’s radio comes to life with a dispatcher reporting that a red Chevrolet Caprice with four men in it had driven by the Area 151 parking lot and that shots had been fired from the car. Hensley steps on the gas and is back at the lot in 90 seconds. When he pulls up, there isn’t a soul to be seen.

A little while later the dispatcher is back on the air, reporting that witnesses to the shooting are in the parking lot of the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop at the Tacoma Mall. Five other cruisers are already there when Hensley arrives, and officers are taking statements from a young couple. The man tells officers he thinks 11 to 12 rounds had been fired and that “the minute we heard it, everybody scattered.”

Hensley drives back to the nightclub’s lot. Eight officers with flashlights are walking slowly about, peering intently at the ground. They’re looking for shell casings. An officer holds up a plastic bag. There are four casings inside.

Within an hour, Hensley is outside another nightspot, the Factory on 56th and Washington streets, talking to two off-duty police officers who are parked across the street, working as security for the place. Suddenly he looks up and says, “Right there.”

A red early-’90s Caprice matching the description of the shooters’ car is cruising slowly past on Washington. Hensley climbs into his cruiser, pulls in behind the car and turns on his overhead flashing lights. The Caprice accelerates.

The chase lasts around a minute. The Caprice makes a sudden left turn onto a side street and into the parking lot of an apartment complex. It slows, the doors fly open and two men jump out. They run into the darkened courtyard of the complex. The Caprice, its engine still running, slowly rolls up to the curb and stops.

Hensley sits tight and calls for backup.

“We’re not going after them,” he says. Not until backup comes, at least. That’s something you learn after 17 years as a cop.

“I did it when I was young, and you look back and thank God I wasn’t injured,” he says. “But would I do it again?”

With a small laugh, Hensley answers his own question: “No.”

By now, there are cruisers and police all around the complex. Another officer drives up behind Hensley. The two men draw their pistols and cautiously approach the Caprice. There’s no one inside. They holster their weapons and go to talk to the other officers at the scene.

Afterward, Hensley indicates that the incident falls in the category of no harm, no foul.

“With a body or damaged property or something that is tangible, we would have had this place cordoned off with a K-9 (team) tracking,” he says. “We would have been all over it.”

As it is, “we have shots fired (but) no victims,” Hensley says – and with the crowd at the parking lot long gone, no witnesses other than the young couple. The police had little to go on.

He puts his cruiser into gear and goes back out on patrol.

‘ALMOST SECOND-GENERATION’

Crime is concentrated in certain small sections of South Tacoma Way.

“The actual area of activity is pretty doggone short,” Hensley says. The long stretches dominated by auto dealerships and car-repair shops are generally trouble-free after sundown.

But there are pockets where police answer a lot of calls. Hensley describes the section between 47th and Oakes streets as “a hotbed of gang activity. Our gang unit’s all over that.”

Hensley radios Tacoma police Sgt. Al Morris supervisor of the department’s gang unit, who’s also working the graveyard shift, for a meeting to discuss gang activity along the thoroughfare.

Asked what kinds of gangs operate in the area, Morris says, “What kinds of gangs do you want? Black gangs, Asian gangs, Hispanic gangs. We’ve even got some white supremacists. Any kind of gang that you can think of.”

Morris estimates there are 20 sets of gangs, and says it’s impossible to estimate the number of members. Most are males, and small percentages are females. Many are between ages 14 and 21, but some are in their mid-30s.

The older gangsters, Morris says “are the hard-core ones that are dealing dope and have had firearms and drug arrests since they were 14 or 15. It’s almost second-generation now.”

And Ake calls the area around 47th and Oakes “really horrible” in terms of gang activity.

“They’re not just Tacoma gang members, but they’re coming from Lakewood, from Parkland, from Spanaway. That seems to be a hub for them,” he says.

“There are a couple of reasons for this: close proximity to Tacoma Mall, and then the area is a main Pierce Transit hub that all different parts of the city go to.”

Another hot spot is the 5400 block of South Tacoma Way, Ake says. Trouble in the area is “associated with the taverns down there.”

Despite that, the street is far less crime-plagued than some other areas of the city. Pacific Avenue generates many more serious calls for police these days, Ake says.

But lately the situation has been improving along South Tacoma Way.

“There’s a big difference now than about three months ago regarding how much activity is going on,” Ake says. “The city has provided us extra money for gang emphasis and I’ve been able to tap into that and provide extra enforcement out there. We brought people in on overtime to work specifically in that area and we tried to have them work that thing seven days a week.”

Also, he’s been working closely with business and neighborhood groups to pinpoint problem areas.

“We’ve got good communication with them, so if there are issues there, they let us know,” Ake says.

But although crime is down at the moment, there’s no guarantee the trend will continue.

“That’s the danger on South Tacoma Way,” Ake says. “It can spring up on us quick and it can proliferate just like it did on Pacific Avenue.”

‘THAT’S GOOD ENOUGH’

Night patrol on South Tacoma Way wears on.

Hensley drives from north of the former Area 151 down to the Homestead Restaurant, the southern limit of his patrol area. He makes the circuit around 50 times, he says, turning on to side streets, looking down alleys.

He pulls into a darkened driveway between two shuttered businesses and cuts his lights. Across the street is a gas station known as a site where men come looking for prostitutes.

“There is high-profile policing on the one hand,” he says, “but there is surveillance you can do even in a big white car with overhead lights.”

No transactions happen this night.

With nearly 20 years on the job, Hensley says he still likes the work as a street cop.

“In Tacoma, you can see absolutely everything in a law enforcement career,” he says.

“It has its good days and its bad days,” he says of the work, and there are more good than bad.

“I’m an optimistic person,” he says. “I generally think that people are good and that goodness will come out, given certain circumstances, even in stressful or controversial situations.

“You can go days, weeks, months without something positive, and then you’ll come upon a guy that maybe his car broke down. You swing by to check on him, and he looks at you before you leave and he says, ‘I just want to thank you for what you’re doing out there.’ And that’s good enough. That lasts for quite a long time. Because it’s not just that guy, but you can probably count many more thousands that feel like that guy that you don’t ever hear about.”

Soren Andersen: 253-597-8742, Ext. 6235

soren.andersen@thenewstribune.com

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