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Originally published June 18, 2012 at 9:59 PM | Page modified June 19, 2012 at 1:33 PM

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Forum examines Seattle's gun violence

City leaders held a meeting to address Seattle's sharp rise in homicides and increasing urban violence at Town Hall Seattle Monday night.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The panelistsat Monday's forum

Mike McGinn: Seattle mayor

John Diaz: Seattle police chief

Bruce Harrell: Seattle City Council member and chairman of the council's public-safety committee

Mariko Lockhart: director of the city's Youth Violence Initiative

Rahwa Habte: an organizer with OneAmerica, the state's largest immigrant-advocacy organization

Bill Hobson: executive director of DESC, formerly known as the Downtown Emergency Services Center

Danny Westneat: Seattle Times columnist

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In the wake of rising gun violence in Seattle, political leaders, police brass and community activists publicly addressed causes and possible solutions Monday night at Seattle Town Hall.

There have been 21 homicides in the city this year, one more than in all of 2011. Nineteen of those victims were killed by gunfire.

The recent shootings have been especially disconcerting because they occurred in parts of the city "where we haven't had this kind of violence in the past," said Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, adding that the city has to change the current culture in which people too readily resort to weapons to settle disputes.

But Bruce Harrell, a Seattle City Council member and chairman of the council's public-safety committee, said the violence is symptomatic of a much larger problem, namely impoverishment and despair, and "that's the culture we need to change."

"Gunfire is not new — we've been making noise about this for a long time," Harrell said of residents who live in ZIP code 98118, which encompasses the area roughly from Columbia City to Rainier Beach and is among the most racially diverse in the country. Now, he said, "Our worst nightmares are coming true."

Diaz and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn both disputed the notion that the current struggle between the city and the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) has made police officers less aggressive in doing their jobs. The DOJ, which has found a pattern of Seattle officers using excessive force, is pressing for reforms.

The 90-minute program spanned a variety of topics, from gang dynamics to gun-control laws, public misconceptions about people with mental illnesses, the impact of budget cuts and recent successes of the city's Youth Violence Prevention Initiative.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat posed questions to the panel, which in addition to the police chief, the mayor and Harrell included Mariko Lockhart, director of the city's Youth Violence Initiative; Rahwa Habte, an organizer with OneAmerica, the state's largest immigrant-advocacy organization; and Bill Hobson, the executive director of DESC, formerly known as the Downtown Emergency Services Center.

Members of the audience and others who watched the discussion on the Seattle Channel posed written questions that were read aloud to the panelists.

What can regular folks do to work toward ending the violence? Habte said, "Vote your values. Don't stand for education cuts" or cuts to social services.

"If you really want to get to the root of violence ... you have to get civilly engaged," she said, suggesting that residents volunteer, donate to worthy causes and get to know their neighbors. "These are easy things anyone can do to get to the root of violence and misunderstanding in our neighborhoods."

As the discussion ended, McGinn said: "Again and again we've seen people in Seattle step up and take personal responsibility to make a difference. ... This is a problem that requires all of us to find a solution."

The community meeting was prompted by a rash of recent, gun-related tragedies: On April 22, culinary student Nicole Westbrook, 21, was struck by a stray bullet while walking home in Pioneer Square and later died of her injuries.

A month later, on May 24, Justin Ferrari, a father of two who worked at Seattle-based real-estate website Zillow, was fatally shot while driving through the Central District with his parents and children.

Then on May 30, Ian Stawicki, a mentally ill gunman, opened fire on patrons of Cafe Racer in the University District, killing four of them: Joe Albanese, Drew Keriakedes, Kimberly Layfield and Donald Largen. A fifth person, Leonard Meuse, survived.

Stawicki shot and killed Gloria Leonidas about 30 minutes later as he carjacked her Mercedes SUV in a parking lot next to Town Hall Seattle. He later fatally shot himself on a West Seattle sidewalk as police moved in to arrest him.

Since those slayings, three other people — a man and two women — have been injured in shootings in the city, according to Seattle police.

Seattle Times staff reporter Alexa Vaughn contributed to this report.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654

or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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