Calls about narcotics and other types of crime dropped dramatically in Seattle’s downtown core under the 9 ½ Block Strategy but increased in surrounding areas.
In the months after Mayor Ed Murray and other officials launched a special effort to crack down on drug dealing and related problems in Seattle’s bustling downtown core, calls to the police about narcotics and other types of crime dropped dramatically there.
But data analyzed by The Seattle Times show that calls from surrounding areas shot up during that same period, with clusters of increases located just outside the target zone.
Why? While officials admit there may have been some displacement — crime being pushed from one area to others — they say the data more likely reflect a broader trend: Drug crime has been on the rise across Seattle recently, driven by the heroin epidemic.
They argue the 9 ½ Block Strategy, named for the number of square blocks in the target zone, reduced narcotics activity in that area while it increased elsewhere.
“The philosophy was to take an environment and focus on root causes — drug markets,” Scott Lindsay, an adviser to the mayor, said in an interview.
“The 9½ Block Strategy has been effective in starting the public-safety turnaround of the downtown core, the most dense and visited place in Seattle,” Lindsay said.
Murray introduced the strategy in April 2015, promising that a wave of arrests, along with more visible, coordinated policing, outreach work and changes to the streetscape, would take gun-toting drug dealers out of circulation and disrupt their brazen business.
And to some extent, that has come true. Last spring, Murray’s office hailed the strategy as mostly successful, pointing to data from the effort’s first eight months.
In the target zone, bounded by First and Fourth avenues and Union and Stewart streets, there were 48 percent fewer narcotics-related calls from May to December 2015 than from the same period in 2014, not including calls initiated by police officers.
There were 13 percent fewer calls from the public about disturbances, 12 percent fewer about assaults and 32 percent fewer calls about suspicious circumstances in the area, which included Westlake Park. There were 19 percent fewer calls of all types.
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Lindsay, Murray’s public-safety adviser, both touted law-enforcement gains in the zone in interviews with The Times in April.
“You walk through Westlake Park now and it’s an entirely different experience than it was a year and a half ago,” O’Toole said, talking about the reduction in illegal activity.
The chief said she had heard about crime migrating to other areas but called such reports anecdotal. Lindsay acknowledged a spike near City Hall Park, beyond the target zone, but described it as largely unrelated to the 9 ½ Block Strategy.
“The open-air drug market and problems associated with the open-air drug market in the area did not lift up and move to some other area,” Lindsay said at the time.
Calls rise outside target zone
That may be the case. But the data from outside the target zone tell a more nuanced story about the strategy and crime in Seattle. Calls increased in each of seven neighborhoods surrounding the zone during the strategy’s first eight months.
There were more narcotics calls in First Hill, South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, Belltown, Chinatown International District, Pioneer Square and the remainder of downtown.
There were also more disturbance calls and total calls in each neighborhood, more assaults calls in all but one, and more suspicious-circumstances calls in three.
First Hill experienced some of the steepest increases, seeing 151 percent more narcotics calls (from 47 to 118), 17 percent more disturbances calls, 19 percent more assaults calls, 6 percent more suspicious-circumstances calls and 11 percent more calls of all types.
Narcotics calls jumped 87 percent in South Lake Union (111 to 208) and 79 percent in Capitol Hill (100 to 179).
David Weisburd, a George Mason University criminology professor on whose research Seattle officials relied for the 9 ½ Block Strategy, said the increases don’t prove that the strategy nudged crime from the target zone into surrounding neighborhoods.
On the contrary, the data likely mean that crime rose across Seattle and that the target zone was the exception, Weisburd said, echoing Murray’s stance.
While narcotics calls in the target area dropped by 100, from 227 to 117, they rose in the surrounding neighborhoods by nearly 400, from 621 to 1,009, he noted. Displacement couldn’t have been responsible for the entire bump, said Weisburd, author of “Does Crime Just Move Around the Corner?”
He said wholesale displacement is rarely the consequence when police crack down on problem areas.
“Thirty years ago, the assumption was that if you knocked down crime on a particular street, it would pop up again on the next street. But that usually doesn’t happen,” Weisburd said. “I don’t think the data allow you to draw a strong conclusion either way. There might have been some displacement, but the data don’t suggest it.”
Drug deals ‘all day long’
Further analysis shows that many of the surrounding-neighborhood streets that saw substantial increases in narcotics calls — both from members of the public and from officers on patrol — were those located just outside the 9 ½ Block Strategy area.
When The Times mapped the increases in narcotics calls from the strategy’s first eight months, clusters emerged, each located a short walk from the target zone: around Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market, in Belltown near Fourth Avenue and Blanchard Street, and around Plymouth Pillars Park above Interstate 5.
There were also clusters of increases in disturbances calls, assaults calls and total calls just outside the target zone.
April Stone, a parks-department concierge in Victor Steinbrueck Park, said the area is a hotbed for illegal activity. Drug dealers do a brisk business inside the park and some people who used to cause problems in Westlake Park have moved there, said Stone, who is open to the possibility that the 9 ½ Block Strategy pushed crime her way.
“There are drug deals here, non-discreet, all day long. Westlake used to be the worst,” said Stone, who’s heard about the improvements there. “So where’s it going?”
During the first few months of the anti-crime effort, the police department dedicated West Precinct bike officers to the target zone. That meant there temporarily were fewer bike officers to patrol some other areas, such as Belltown.
But Eliana Martinez, who runs the Deli Shez Cafe off Fourth Avenue, said she’s seen no evidence the strategy negatively impacted Belltown. She said the public-safety situation near the restaurant has actually improved since the strategy launched.
Earlier this month, an employee left some sidewalk chairs and tables outside overnight. No one disturbed them, Martinez said.
“I think the police are doing a good job,” she said. “We’re been very safe.”
Every neighborhood is different, Lindsay said. The increase in narcotics calls around Plymouth Pillars Park may have been related to nearby homeless encampments.
While narcotics calls exploded in South Lake Union, total calls there increased only 5 percent. More drugs and less disorder could be a “net positive,” Lindsay said.
“We knew we weren’t going to stop drug dealing. We knew we weren’t going to stop drug use. Those weren’t the goals of our strategy. Our goals were to tackle an open-air drug market and mitigate the street disorder associated with it,” the adviser said.
Lindsay said the drug market around Victor Steinbrueck Park is different from the drug market that operated in the 9 ½ Block Strategy area.
“It’s been associated with marijuana for a long time and attracts tourists,” he said. “In no way did we see the heroin users from Third Avenue flood Victor Steinbrueck Park.”
The Times initially analyzed and mapped data from the 9 ½ Block Strategy’s first eight months because that was the period officials pointed to in branding it a success.
Early this year, the pattern changed somewhat. Some neighborhoods surrounding the target zone continued to see increases in calls. But others, such as Pioneer Square, saw decreases from January to May 2016.
Lindsay attributed the improvement in Pioneer Square to the police department taking a more proactive, 9 ½ Block Strategy-style approach to that neighborhood.