It was a dark time in Tacoma’s history. Street corners were hubs of activity for drug dealers and prostitutes. Gang violence and drive-by shootings gripped the city.
It was the late 1980s, and waves of gang members from Southern California had migrated north along the Interstate 5 corridor.
Bob Sheehan, a 31-year veteran of the Tacoma Police Department, recalls drug dealers openly selling crack cocaine and liquid heroin.
“On any given night you could hear gun shots,” said Sheehan, who retired from the Tacoma force and now works as DuPont police chief. “It was a wild time.”
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In January 1989, the citizens of Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood reached out to a higher power by holding a 12-hour prayer vigil. Parishioners streamed into the church throughout the day to pray for relief from the gangs and drugs.
Later that month, an overflow crowd of elected leaders, government administrators and regular citizens came together in the Foss High School gym. It was the first step to creating a new organization aimed at cleaning up neighborhoods.
They would call it Safe Streets.
At the time, the name might have seemed like ironic or wishful thinking. But 25 years later, the organization continues to make an impact on communities across the South Sound.
On Wednesday, Safe Streets celebrated its 25th anniversary Superstar fundraising breakfast. It has grown from a network of fewer than a dozen neighborhood groups in urban Tacoma to 125 organizations throughout Pierce County that plan street cleanups and organize community meetings.
It also has expanded its mission to impact students. It runs 10 youth leadership programs in middle and high schools in Pierce County.
Today, Safe Streets has 11 paid employees and an annual budget of $879,000 — an increase of $679,000 compared to its first budget in 1989. It boasts around 13,500 volunteers, and its organizational turf now stretches from North Tacoma to Graham.
While the open-air drug markets and drive-by shootings of the late ‘80s have largely disappeared, Safe Streets continues to find meaning by advocating on issues such as human trafficking and drug abuse, said Executive Director Priscilla Lisicich.
She said neighborhood groups are now focused on less violent issues, such as property crime and blight.
Lisicich said the beauty of Safe Streets, then as now, boils down one important area of expertise.
“We figure out how to make people come together.”
The catalyst for Safe Streets was a community meeting in the Foss High gym on a rainy January night in 1989.
The meeting called to confront the rise in crime was supposed to attract 500 but drew 2,500 concerned citizens. People arrived more than an hour early, filling up chairs and bleachers beyond capacity.
For elected leaders, it was a chance to listen. The 46 politicians who attended were not allowed to speak, a request made by Dennis Flannigan, a former Pierce County Council member and a founding member of Safe Streets.
“It was electric,” said Dan Barkley, former assistant superintendent for Tacoma Public Schools who was also a founder of the organization. “I think 2,500 people left that night with a sense of purpose and a sense of hope.”
Safe Streets would launch its first major program in May 1989, aimed at painting over gang-related graffiti. In partnership with the Tacoma Police and local businesses, it started collecting paint and deploying volunteers on weekends to cover tagged buildings, said Lyle Quasim, the first director of Safe Streets.
That summer, the group would launch a block-by-block organizing project, which aimed to create neighborhood watch groups throughout Tacoma.
Guidebooks were distributed educating citizens on how to identify suspects, set up a phone trees and organize regular block meetings, among other tools. As the project continued, citizens were connected to local government services, including police and code enforcement officers.
Lisicich said block groups, which usually meet once a month, quickly became Safe Streets’ calling card, empowering small groups to tackle unique problems in their neighborhoods.
Safe Streets was using a law enforcement tactic that gained traction in the early ‘90s. Called community-oriented policing, it relied on citizens to see and report crime to the police.
The results were not immediate. Many drug dealers gangs continued to control neighborhoods.
It would take a larger community effort to address the embedded gang activity. Barkley said the school district implemented a zero-tolerance policy on weapons and strong stance on gang graffiti on school property. Along with a change in policy, Barkley said the district worked with community organizations to provide after-school and summer programs.
Other local organizations were also on the scene, including the Hilltop Action Coalition, which was focused on cleaning up one of the hardest-hit areas in Pierce County.
Nine months after the meeting at Foss High, gang violence in Tacoma had reached a boiling point.
Tacoma made national news when a firefight broke out between off-duty Army Rangers and gangsters in the Hilltop neighborhood.
In what was known as the Ash Street Shootout, gangsters fired behind parked cars while the soldiers took cover in a house and fired back.
Both sides exchanged 300 rounds during the 10-minute firefight before police arrived and the gangsters scattered.
“As a community, we had lost control,” said Jim Walton, former Tacoma city manager. “There were no other options, people were fed up.”
The Hilltop was not the only neighborhood infected with gangs.
Lisicich, who has been with Safe Streets since the beginning, said she recalls a 2-square block area on the Eastside that had six drug houses operating at one time in the late ‘80s.
She said there were also many drug houses south of Tacoma in the Parkland, Spanaway and Tillicum areas.
Pacific Avenue was an open-air drug market, with dealers soliciting drugs at red lights and outside office buildings, offering a variety of narcotics from crack cocaine to heroin, Lisicich said.
“Drug dealers would be running out to your car, trying to stop you late at night,” she said. “It was really rampant.”
The disorder found its way into schools. Tacoma campuses saw a dramatic increase in the number of weapons violations and gang identification among students in the late ‘80s, Barkley said.
But Safe Streets began to gain a foothold.
“It didn’t happen in the first year — I mean, it was a big strong pushback — but we just kept on organizing,” Lisicich said.
Organizers learned over the years that reaching potential gang recruits — specifically, children — was a key to tamping down the violence.
In 1998, Safe Streets launched its Youth Leading Change program for high school and middle school students. They are trained as peer leaders and complete projects based on a variety of issues in their schools, such as drug use, eating disorders and dating violence.
The program is now active in all five major high schools in Tacoma, two middle schools and three other schools throughout Pierce County.
Hector Farias, a youth coordinator with Safe Streets, said students learn how to write grants, run club meetings and resolve conflicts between peers.
Farias said a five-day leadership camp encourages youth to continue their education through college and allows them to meet with like-minded youth around the South Sound.
The youth campaigns, he said, go hand in hand with Safe Streets’ overall mission of deterring crime and bringing communities together.
“They need to believe in themselves, they need to believe that they can do something in life,” he said.
A NEW TIME
Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell said many of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods have shown remarkable progress since the late ‘80s. He should know; he was a patrolman on the Hilltop in that era.
“To look at it today versus what it was before is an incredible turnaround,” Ramsdell said.
The number of violent crimes in Tacoma has dropped 54 percent from 3,522 cases in 1994 to 1,615 in 2012, according to the FBI’s uniform crime statistics.
Property crime also has trended downward. From 1989 to 2012, the city has seen a 36-percent decrease in total property crime, including burglary and motor vehicle theft, according to the FBI.
Ramsdell said Tacoma faces new threats, such as online drug and prostitution markets, and still has a lot of property crime.
But for the dramatic improvements that have taken root, he gives credit to groups such as Safe Streets, plus the Police Department and Tacoma citizens. He said Safe Streets has played a significant role by organizing communities and educating citizens on how they can report crime.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland said much the same thing at Wednesday’s anniversary breakfast.
"Neighbors get involved and make a difference, and one of the reasons neighbors do that is Safe Streets,” she said.
Founders such as Barkley say they feel a sense of accomplishment.
“I’m incredibly proud of Safe Streets,” Barkley said. “But beyond that, I’m proud of Tacoma.”