Wednesday’s mass shooting in downtown Seattle should be a tipping point forcing Seattle and King County to finally address the area’s safety and civility problems.
At rush hour in the heart of downtown, eight people were shot, one fatally, and the victims included 9-year-old boy. People cowered in a coffee shop, fled to the transit tunnel or lay bleeding in front of the McDonald’s on a gritty stretch of Third Avenue that’s been problematic for decades. It was the third shooting in three days in the vicinity.
Seattle Police continued to search Thursday for two suspects, both 24-year-olds with dozens of arrests. Police have one suspected shooter in custody.
The incident was the act of criminals with a brazen disregard for bystanders. But Seattle’s political establishment shares some responsibility for allowing criminal activity along Third Avenue to fester and become a magnet for troublemakers. The establishment enables a justice system that allows criminals to repeatedly harm others with little consequence. City Hall hasn’t adequately prioritized the safety of people downtown and in other areas with serious, drug-related crime problems.
A chorus of progressive politicians responded to Wednesday’s shooting by calling for stricter gun-control laws. Of course, that’s needed, but there are already strict laws against felons having guns.
In this case, blaming guns sidesteps hard questions about why the city isn’t better protecting people from known dangers of the drug epidemic and related crimes. Mayor Jenny Durkan said gangs are involved, but gangs are primary traffickers of illegal drugs.
“The fact that a gun was involved here — that’s terrible — but the gun isn’t the principal issue,” said Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral police adviser. “The principal issue is an out-of-control drug market the city has just not been able to take care of for 30 years.”
Workers, residents, business groups and this editorial board have been demanding criminal-justice reforms to address crime spikes directly and indirectly related to drugs for more than a year.
The response was another task force, followed by emphasis patrols and yet more social services to support and shelter offenders. An overly indulgent City Council squawked at the patrols and considered defunding probation officers, who were monitoring at least one of Wednesday’s suspects.
Police responded within 15 seconds to the crime scene, said Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, in part because that area is a focus of ongoing emphasis patrols.
That’s good, but more changes are needed, including a firm and sustained enforcement of drug-dealing and drug-loitering laws in problem areas like Third Avenue and Pine Street. Durkan’s plans to increase police presence downtown, add another mobile precinct and boost gang enforcement are positive steps as long as they don’t simply shift crime elsewhere.
This also demands a commitment by City Attorney Pete Holmes and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to aggressively enforce crimes related to drug activity.
Their compassion for those suffering from addiction is important. But many in the community are losing tolerance for criminal behavior that perpetuates and profits from addiction, exacerbates homelessness and concentrates in known drug markets. Of course, they should not resume the drug war or jail everyone with a drug problem. But there should be clear and significant consequences for criminal behavior. Addicts and the public at large aren’t helped by the current system’s leniency.
The effects of additional police and the city’s new squad of community-service officers will be severely limited if there’s no serious prosecution of criminal activity in places like Third and Pine.
If Wednesday’s tragedy won’t spur systemic changes in Seattle’s criminal-justice system, what will it take?
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