This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
An open-air drug market, frustrated neighbors and a police department that appeared to be beating a retreat: Something was bound to happen in Tacoma’s Hilltop in September 1989.
Happen, it did. As The News Tribune’s Sean Robinson recounted in Sunday’s paper, a firefight between off-duty Army Rangers and gangsters erupted, spraying 300 bullets across the neighborhood but miraculously killing no one.
The shooting was over in 10 minutes; the ramifications played out for years.
Many people who were living in Pierce County at the time remember the shootout as the event that shook the community out of a collective stupor about how bad crime had become and how much peril the Hilltop was in.
For the relative newcomers, the recollection is a show of how far Tacoma has come.
A couple days after the shooting, our editorial board pondered whether Tacoma had truly devolved to such uncontrolled lawlessness. We said: “In fact, it has, and Tacoma’s city leaders and police administrators had better be prepared – more prepared than they’ve been so far – to come to grips with the problem.”
Never underestimate the power of startling events to mobilize a community. Law enforcement and Tacoma residents got the message. It was a long, hard slog marked by further violence, but together they gradually took back the Hilltop.
Along the way, police learned what was to become conventional law enforcement wisdom: that keeping close tabs on the small stuff is an effective way to control the big stuff. And city leaders got an earful about making public safety a priority and about paying attention to the neighborhoods.
The Hilltop today bears little resemblance to the 1989 scene. It still has spots of trouble, but the worst of the worst has moved on. Today, it is a neighborhood in transition due to decades of work by activists and a housing market run-up that helped accelerate their work.
Bill Foulk, the retired Ranger who led his Army buddies in the stand against neighborhood gangsters in 1989, still lives on Ash Street in a house with a lush yard and a white picket fence. His tenacity is admirable, even if his tactics 20 years ago strayed too far toward vigilantism.
Hilltop wasn’t saved at the end of a gun, but because good people didn’t give up – and because the city aided their efforts. Law-abiding citizens don’t take matters into their own hands until they’ve lost faith that police and city officials will help. The shootout is the cautionary tale that should ensure that the city continues to take neighborhood concerns seriously.