Special Reports

Holiday evening leaves questions, anger, tears

The Fourth of July was a beautiful evening that, at the last moment, disintegrated into a nightmare for one family, and a series of irritations for thousands more.

Just as the sky began to darken, Zina Linnik, 12, was apparently snatched from the alley behind her home. Meanwhile, scofflaw Tacomans, unaware of the kidnapping, lit tens of thousands of banned fireworks.

It feels odd to lump the abduction of a child with one more year of suffering through illegal fireworks. But both have hit the community hard, and prompted criticism of the Tacoma Police Department.

Why did it take so long to issue Zina’s Amber Alert? Why weren’t police confiscating fireworks?

They’re fair questions, said Lt. Mike Ake, the officer who managed police staffing for the Fourth. Ake’s triple challenge was to keep Tacoma protected, provide adequate security for the Freedom Fair, and see that the firework ordinance was enforced.

He knows Tacomans sick of the annual blastfest had high expectations of the new plan to fine people $257 for setting off personal pyrotechnics.

The police had thought the days before the Fourth would play out as they have in the past, with plenty of bang before the big night, and lots of opportunities to make a preventive statement by issuing fines. But Tacoma was oddly quiet.

“Before the Fourth of July, there were not many fireworks calls at all,” Ake said. “On the Fourth, we had a whole bunch of calls. It came right at the peak.”

The peak was Freedom Fair, which drew close to 100,000 people to the waterfront park along Ruston Way. Last year, gangs brought their violence to the event, menacing each other and endangering ordinary people out for a day of fun.

“Last year, remember how many people complained there were not enough police officers on the waterfront?” Ake asked. “This year, because of the increased violence with the gangs, we wanted to make sure we weren’t caught off guard. We had possibly 100-plus officers down there.”

The Freedom Fair plan worked.

Elsewhere in Tacoma, Ake had two officers patrolling for fireworks.

“One of them was called to the Freedom Fair, and the other got caught up in an arrest she had to take care of,” Ake said.

The fireworks plan didn’t work.

Given current staffing levels, it might never work. That’s why Ake and others in the department are looking for an alternative enforcement solution. The public deserves an effective program, he said, and the team intends to develop one by next year.

Police on general patrol in Tacoma that day responded to a drive-by shooting, a rape, two serious accidents and Manny Mesa’s desperate family.

Manny, 5, is autistic and, around 5 p.m., managed to open the locked front door.

Manny’s grandmother, Linda Rose, said five officers joined all the neighbors in the search. She calls them angels. She cannot say enough about the professionalism, thoroughness and compassion they demonstrated until Manny was found at 7:30 p.m.

She is praying for Zina’s safe return, and every time she sees a gray van like the one Zina’s father described, she follows it to get the license number.

That is precisely the effect an Amber Alert should have, and it’s the reason that alert must be as accurate as possible from the start.

“We were talking about an Amber Alert all evening,” Ake said. “The only reason it didn’t go out right away was conflicting information at the scene.”

Incorrect information has a tendency to stick, even when it’s corrected, and can result in bad leads, wasted time and lost chances, none of which help Zina. Better to wait a bit and get it right.

Better, as Police Chief Don Ramsdell has done, to ask us to look for specific descriptions and behaviors so we, like Linda Rose, can help in any large or small way we can, to put Zina’s nightmare to an end.

Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677