“Hey little girl, want some popcorn?” whispered the man to the 9-year-old girl at the Ballard Fred Meyer off Leary Way NW.
“No,” she said, refusing to make eye contact. The man whispered, she thought, so her 12-year-old brother couldn’t hear from where he waited nearby to ask a store clerk where to find fireworks while their mother grabbed milk from another aisle.
“Hey little girl, do you want a necklace?” the man said, pushing a necklace in her face. Now the girl had to look at him. “No,” she said.
“Hey little girl, do you want a beer?” he said, taking a beer from his shopping cart full of personal belongings.
“No,” she said. This time the store clerk overheard. The clerk approached, telling the man to leave the store. He refused, instead taking his shopping cart and moving to the coffee shop inside the store.
You may have already read about the above exchange. The girl's mother, Ballard resident Jennifer Knauer, shared her July 3 experience along with a photo she took of the man who allegedly harassed her daughter. As of publishing, that Facebook post has nearly 400 likes, more than 2,500 shares and droves of parents asking how to talk to their kids about safety.
According to Knauer, upon rejoining her children on July 3 and hearing what had happened, she asked the clerk for the store manager who in turn called a security guard. Knauer meanwhile had called 911 upon learning Fred Meyer would not.
The guard spoke with the man and, after an exchange Knauer describes as “hostile,” escorted him off the grounds. Knauer then followed him in her car and called 911 again, this time to provide his location.
“The nice 911 lady admitted that there was no chance of a squad car responding because of too many incidents and too few officers,” she says.
Seattle Police detective Mark Jamieson says the police did respond though later in the day. “On July 3 at about 8:30 p.m., our 911 operator received a call from [Knauer] and she informed our dispatcher that she was following this guy. Our call taker told her that probably wasn’t a good idea, and at 8:48 p.m. [Knauer] informed the operator that she was leaving to go home,” he says.
At 8:57 p.m., Jamieson continues, officers headed to the area where they found someone matching Knauer’s description. However, they didn’t have a lawful reason to arrest the man as Knauer was no longer on scene. Knauer notes that the police had advised she go home.
The case has since been assigned to a detective who will review the report, talk to witnesses and see if any video footage is available. Most importantly, says Jamieson, the detective will investigate the intent behind the incident.
“Is this a luring case, or is this a guy saying inappropriate things to kids? That’s something that we don’t know yet,” he says.
Jamieson notes that both Knauer and her daughter responded appropriately. “First and foremost, the child did the right thing,” he says. “She was with a store employee and immediately told her mom what occurred. Her mom in turn called 911, which is what we want people to do.”
What you can do
While such incidents remain rare, this incident serves as a good reminder to talk to your kids about what to do if a stranger makes them feel uncomfortable. Kim Estes of Savvy Parents Safe Kids in Redmond offers this advice: Start by reviewing these 10 simple rules with your kids.
- I am special and have the right to be safe at all times.
- I know my name, address, phone number and my caregiver’s name.
- I never go anywhere or take anything from someone I don’t know.
- I always check first to get permission before I go anywhere or get into a car, even if it is with someone I know.
- My bathing suit areas are private!
- I don’t have to be polite if someone tries to bully me into doing something that makes me feel uncomfortable or scared.
- It’s OK to say “No!” and to tell a safe grown-up when something doesn’t feel right.
- I don’t keep secrets (especially from my caregivers)!
- I always take a buddy and I know what to do if I ever get lost.
- I always pay attention to my own inner voice, especially that “uh-oh” feeling. “
“You can role play the next time you are shopping with your child,” says Estes. “Ask your child to identify two safe adults that they would go to for help. Where’s the nearest cash register and store clerk? These are life skills.”
A new normal?
Any concerned parent may wonder, 'Are incidents like this increasing in our city?' Both Estes and Jamieson say no.
Statistics, says Estas, show crime is at its lowest point in 40 years though social media may not always make it feel that way.
“People are much more aware these days because of social media like Facebook, but is it happening more?” adds Jamieson. “I’d say there’s much more awareness and because of that awareness things are being reported more often. I don’t know if it’s occurring more often.”
Either way, he says, “We want people to notify the police. This is the only way we are going to be able to investigate and bring people to justice.”
As for Knauer, she’s questioning the safety of a neighborhood she’s lived in for 15 years and where, she says, she has seen safety erode over time.
“Sadly, I have had an increasing need to raise my kids with the knowledge that they are vulnerable in formerly safe places like the grocery store, public library and neighborhood parks,” says Knauer. “This incident has left me indignant, angry and vulnerable, and I feel like people all over our city are experiencing similar incidents. My story is small but it profiles the many public safety issues faced by my community and others throughout Seattle.”