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Seattle strained by rare wave of gun violence

Surge occurs as police practices are debated

Robert Sorbo/Reuters

A mourner paid respects outside the Cafe Racer in Seattle after a shooting in which four people were killed.

SEATTLE - The worst surge of gun violence in years, culminating last week in six deaths over the course of an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday, has deeply stressed this city, where many neighborhoods normally feel as safe as living rooms.

The timing of the crime wave is almost as jarring. It comes in the middle of a complex political dance between the city and the Department of Justice over how the Seattle Police Department should change its practices after a series of high-profile incidents that showed what federal investigators called “a pattern or practice of excessive force.’’

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With the killings last week - four in a coffee shop and another across town in a carjacking by the same man, who later shot himself when surrounded by the police - the number of homicides in just five months in Seattle reached 21, as many as in all of last year.

What connects the dots - in the community debate about overhauling the police department, and now in the sense of vulnerability in a city that usually feels tidy - is a riptide of guns.

In Wednesday’s rampage, a man who had been kicked out of Cafe Racer near the University of Washington campus, denied service because of his erratic behavior, returned with a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol.

“If you look back over the shootings we’ve had this year and the prior year, you can see many of them are related to the belief that it’s OK to carry a gun somewhere to solve a dispute,’’ Mayor Mike McGinn said at a news conference on Thursday. “We have to look at what we can do to redouble our efforts in this regard.’’

Jennifer Keys, 41, a human resources manager who lives near Cafe Racer, was more succinct.

“The neighbors are freaking out,’’ said Keys, who has long been involved in local politics. And with anxieties running so high, she said she expected a blizzard of back and forth about what should happen next on everything from gun control to police patrols. “Some responses are going to be irrational,’’ she said.

Even in the best of times, the police in Seattle, a generally low-crime city, live under something of a bell jar of scrutiny. Widespread libertarian sentiments about personal liberty - and a small but vocal anarchist community ready on short notice to throw epithets, or sometimes rocks, at the police - often bump up against expectations of personal safety.

The police are also tested by an average of 100 to 300 political demonstrations a year.

Police officials said that efforts used in some other cities to get guns off the street - notably the New York’s Police Department’s “stop, question and frisk’’ program, which gives the police latitude to stop people officers think might be carrying a weapon or other contraband - would simply not be accepted here, despite a record of success as measured in seized weapons.

“Our community has probably a lower tolerance than New York City does for police intervention,’’ Mike Sanford, an assistant chief at the Patrol Operations Bureau, said. But with the recent shootings, he said, there are now genuine safety issues in some neighborhoods, and people are reaching out to the police seeking reassurance and a greater presence.

The federal investigation began last year after an officer shot and killed John T. Williams, a woodcarver who was a member of a First Nations tribe of Canada and a fixture of downtown Seattle’s street scene. Williams, who sometimes drank heavily and was hard of hearing, was shot in August 2010 after refusing to put down his carving knife.

A spokesman for the US attorney’s office in Seattle declined to comment on the negotiations with the city about the changes that investigators have said are needed.

But in interviews last week, some city residents said they were worried that the latest wave of gun violence could lead to a toughening up by police officers - the very antithesis of what federal investigators said the department needed.

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