It is no coincidence that Wednesday’s deadly shooting happened at the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street. For the better part of four decades, the 1500 block of Third Avenue has been host to the largest open-air drug market in Seattle, what participants call “the Blade.” Like open-air drug markets in other cities, the Blade generates violence. The hyper-concentration of criminal activity and drug transactions there creates a toxic mix that has proven immune to decades of regular police enforcement.
Thirty years ago, open-air drug markets were common in the downtowns of almost every major U.S. city. But many cities, large and small, have been able to substantially address this scourge. Their experiences — both successes and failures — have established a solid outline of what works and doesn’t work.
First, keep the goal focused on disrupting the physical drug market space, not the larger drug crisis. We cannot readily stop drug use and drug dealing, but we can stop users and dealers from occupying and conducting the trade at the busiest intersection downtown. People still buy and sell millions of dollars of drugs every day in New York City, but the elimination of most of their vast open-air drug markets has made the city dramatically safer.
Second, open-air drug markets cannot be disrupted through marginal increases in regular enforcement. In Seattle, every drug user readily knows that they can score on the Blade. And drug dealers, whether established veterans or new entrants, know that is where the customers will be. Police enforcement activity is just part of the cost of doing business. Incarcerated drug dealers are rapidly replaced as long as the drug market remains open for business.
Third, open-air drug markets are highly specific to a micro geographic location, often a single block face. Once shut down, open-air drug markets don’t just pick up and move a few blocks away. Drug activity will continue, for sure, but dealers and users are never able to recover the psychological ownership of space associated with the original location. Once dispersed, everyone becomes more circumspect in their operation. And because there’s no longer a single spot to buy or sell drugs, it’s less important to fight over owning the turf.
And fourth, while there is no silver bullet to close a drug market, what has consistently worked in other cities is decisive action — a concerted commitment from police, prosecutors and politicians to take extraordinary measures that send a crystal clear message that drug dealing, use, and all associated activities will simply not be tolerated at that location. This does not need to mean severe sentences, but it does need to mean certainty of disruptive consequences.
Unfortunately, in Seattle, there are huge barriers to organizing that kind of decisive, whole-of-government approach to tackling the Blade. Politicians, our elected prosecutors and advocates conflate the extraordinary measures necessary to close a drug market in a micro geographic area with the larger question of citywide drug policy. The haunting specter of a “return to the war on drugs” quickly drowns out any discussion. As a result, we’ve been stuck with an endless series of half-measures that have done no good for anyone, including the dealers and users who are still swept up in the drip-drip of decades of regular enforcement.
What might shutting down the Blade look like in practice? To begin, a transparent effort from police and prosecutors to send a message to the drug-market participants that new rules will apply on the 1500 block of Third Avenue and the immediate surrounding vicinity as of a set date. The rules should be clear and public (pass out laminated cards, even). Historically, every Seattle police drug operation started with “buy and slides” — undercover drug sting operations with no warning. Instead, do the opposite — let everyone know exactly what enforcement activity police are going to take and when it will begin.
Next, when the date arrives, police and prosecutors need to strictly enforce those rules. If someone is dealing drugs within those tight geographic boundaries, prosecutors need to create certainty that there will be set and rapidly escalating consequences.
Finally, the city and downtown partners should take immediate steps to significantly alter the physical environment on Third Avenue. There need to be strong visible cues that the space has changed — everything from lighting to addressing some of the more problematic storefronts. For 30 years, the environment of the Blade has evolved to accommodate and welcome criminal activity. It will take sustained, dramatic action to change the psychology of the space.
Seattle is two decades behind most major American cities in shutting down the open-air drug market that poisons the very heart of our downtown and has wrecked thousands of lives over four decades. The lessons from those cities are clear: half-measures like “emphasis patrols” do not work; only a decisive political commitment to take and sustain extraordinary measures will finally break the Blade.