Seattle police say that crime across the downtown shopping district has declined over the past 12 months, a fact they attribute to nearly $1 million in overtime that has gone to pay for added patrols.
In the 28 years that Leroy Shumate has dressed men in shiny wallet chains and dapper zoot suits, his customers have learned to dodge the drug dealers, gangs of unruly teenagers and panhandlers perched outside his Pike Street clothing store.
After complaining to police and even ordering troublemakers away from his front door, Shumate said he had come to the realization that “Pike Street has always been famous for being the crazy street” in downtown Seattle.
But lately the sidewalk in front of Leroy Menswear has been relatively quiet, except for the Seattle police officers who patrol there almost every afternoon. Shumate said he has never seen the corner of Second Avenue and Pike Street, as well as the nearby streets bordering Westlake Center and Pike Place Market, so trouble-free.
Many crimes in the downtown shopping district have declined over the past 12 months, a fact police attribute to spending nearly $1 million in overtime to beef up patrols.
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“The narcotics, the open-air drug sales have been impacted. The number of assaults not occurring is very significant,” said Capt. Steve Brown, who oversees the department’s West Precinct. “It’s a matter of having a consistent presence and an expectation [of officers] down there.”
Seattle police increased uniformed patrols, gang officers and mounted officers days after a man opened fire near Pike Place Market and wounded two men in July 2007. For the people who live and work in the area, the shooting underscored the fact that the neighborhood has long been one of the city’s highest-crime areas, with the most common types of offenses being drug possession and assault.
In response, police flooded the area with officers, maintaining a continual presence that was designed to allow officers to quickly respond to crimes in progress as well as serve as a deterrent even before any laws were broken.
Leslie Mills, who supervises several state Department of Corrections teams that patrol the area for probation violators, said that Westlake, Pike Place Market and nearby Belltown have been popular hangouts for criminals because the areas are easily accessible by bus and teem with commuters, businesses and crowds.
“People who are homeless and transient tend to congregate around other people because they have a sense of anonymity,” said Mills, who works closely with Seattle police while patrolling downtown. “Our job is to weed through the people who are here for legitimate reasons for the people who are down here trying to take advantage of large groups of people, whether they’re shoplifting, panhandling or loitering.”
Police statistics show a major drop in reports of assaults, disturbances, narcotics and civility, or quality of life, issues.
Between January and August 2007, police patrolling the emphasis area bounded by Stewart Street and Olive Way to the north, Fifth Avenue to the east, Union Street to the south and First Avenue to the west received 184 emergency calls for assaults, 840 for disturbances, 182 for narcotics and 325 for civility complaints, which could include public urination or drinking in public.
During the same period this year, the numbers dropped to 113 calls for assault, 648 for disturbances, 79 for narcotics and 204 for civility. Police have also seen a drastic drop in most so-called “onview” incidents — offenses witnessed by officers. Police attribute that drop to the constant presence of officers.
Brown said he wants to maintain the department’s success downtown by continuing the high staffing in the area at least into next year.
Because of the department’s focus on the area, officers are seeing an increase in crime in Belltown and nearby neighborhoods which they believe could be a result of their push on crime near Westlake and Pike Place Market. Sgt. Fred Ibuki said the department is looking at a similar emphasis project in Belltown later this year to address the crime increase.
The city pays overtime for a sergeant and four to six officers seven days a week, police said. Officers work closely with private security at Westlake Center, individual businesses and the Metropolitan Improvement District.
Patrol officers working the overtime shifts have become such mainstays in the area that they have served as tour guides, restaurant critics and information kiosks for tourists. Last Wednesday, a woman stopped Officer David Larrabee to ask him the location of the nearest mailbox.
“You act like a uniformed, armed concierge service,” joked Officer Jim Garner while on patrol earlier this summer.
Ibuki said officers working on the patrol focus on panhandling, which is not a crime. But, Ibuki said, officers can target those who aggressively ask for money.
Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, said downtown residents have reported an improved perception of public safety.
“We believe this increased presence has really made a difference and played a big role,” Joncas said.
Elaine Aprill, who has lived in a condo on Third Avenue for 18 years, said the past 12 months have been the first time that she has felt safe enough to walk around at night. This has also been the first summer she can recall that she and her neighbors didn’t have to dial 911 each night to report problems outside their windows.
“It’s way, way, way better,” Aprill said. “They [the troublemakers] might have moved to a different street; they’re not on my street.”
“I have been here 28 years and the police presence here is incredible now,” said Shumate, owner of Leroy Menswear. “For a long time we used to have foot patrols walking by all the time, then it became bicycle cops who you never got to know. They’ve actually gotten those people out there and I hope they don’t go away.”
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org