One year after Seattle launched its “9½ Block Strategy” to disrupt open-air drug dealing and associated crime downtown, officials say the area is safer. But there are lingering concerns about the strategy’s impact on outlying neighborhoods.
Just over a year ago, Mayor Ed Murray and other local officials launched — with great fanfare — a new push to disrupt and shut down an open-air drug market in Seattle’s downtown core.
They called the approach the “9½ Block Strategy,” naming it for the bustling area bounded by First and Fourth avenues and Union and Stewart streets and promising it would take violent drug dealers off the street.
Today, the mayor’s office contends the strategy has reduced overall crime in the area, including Westlake Park, by about 30 percent, at a cost of $1 million.
The park itself has been revitalized, with street furniture, food trucks, events and games like pingpong brought in to complement the law-enforcement efforts.
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“You walk through Westlake Park now and it’s an entirely different experience than it was a year and a half ago,” said Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole.
Downtown business owners and bus commuters mostly agree with O’Toole, saying they’ve seen less criminal activity — during the day, at least. Some statistics support that view.
Nearly 150 arrests kicked off the strategy last April. Carried out with federal law-enforcement officials in a sweep dubbed “Operation Crosstown Traffic,” that resulted in scores of people being put on probation and landed a handful of the most serious offenders behind bars.
Leaders in other Seattle neighborhoods, who feared a year ago that the strategy might nudge offenders into new areas, say they’ve struggled with more illegal activity over the past year.
O’Toole acknowledges she’s heard anecdotes about criminals migrating, and neighborhood leaders say they aren’t sure to what extent the downtown crackdown is to blame.
“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,” said Scott Lindsay, public-safety adviser to the mayor and an architect of the 9½ Block Strategy.
In addition to arrests, the approach has involved retaking turf from drug dealers by changing the physical landscape of certain blocks.
Officials shifted bus stops along Third Avenue to thin crowds that dealers had been using as camouflage.
They removed some newspaper boxes that had been used like minibars and some sidewalk seats that had been associated with illegal behavior. Signs designating certain alleys as closed to the general public remain posted.
O’Toole and Lindsay admit that problems still exist in the downtown core, but say significant strides have been made.
Police were dispatched to 9 percent fewer calls in the target area in 2015 than in 2014. There were 45 percent fewer narcotics-related calls between May and December, compared with the same period the year before, and 13 percent fewer narcotics-related offenses.
Various misdemeanors and suspicious circumstances calls were down about 30 percent and there were 35 percent fewer robberies.
“Street robberies were one of the more problematic crimes associated with the open-air market,” Lindsay said. “You’ve got a lot of robberies associated with the transactions themselves. You’ve got a lot of desperate people. So we really wanted to see a big decrease … and we saw a very big difference.”
There were no significant reductions in calls about thefts and disturbances, however, he noted, and assaults dropped just 5 percent.
Thirty-one people arrested in Operation Crosstown Traffic were prosecuted at the federal level, mostly for offenses involving drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine. Most of them received credit for time served and were given three years of supervised release.
That’s because many had already been through the court system multiple times and had served lengthy prison terms, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, which said the sentences were intended to address drugs and other issues underlying the criminal conduct.
Eight of the defendants on supervised release have committed no new violations, the office said.
Since the initial sweep, the feds have prosecuted seven additional cases from downtown — all firearms charges.
The bulk of the people arrested in Crosstown Traffic were prosecuted in King County courts. Many were referred to drug court to address their substance abuse, and many others received deferred sentences or jail terms of up to nine months.
Only two people in King County courts received prison terms — one for 45 months and the other for 25 months.
Officials hoped to enroll many defendants in the much-touted Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which connects low-level offenders with treatment and housing.
But only 12 of the 148 people arrested in Crosstown Traffic were referred to LEAD for the first time, partly because many defendants had violent criminal records that excluded them from the program, Lindsay said.
“There’s a big difference between someone who’s a low-level drug dealer trying to support their own habit and someone who’s a gun-toting drug dealer who’s preying on the more vulnerable,” O’Toole said.
LEAD project manager Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, said the small number of new LEAD referrals after Crosstown Traffic has led officials to relax some of the program’s eligibility requirements.
Daugaard praised that move, though she noted the department’s heavy deployment of resources in the 9½ Block Strategy area for months meant less resources to help with LEAD elsewhere.
Blocks along Second Avenue Extension in Pioneer Square have played host to several violent incidents recently, including a deadly shooting in March.
There were concerns last summer about an increase in illegal activity on Capitol Hill, particularly public drug use, said Zachary Pullin, president of the Capitol Hill Community Council.
Rather than try to figure out whether the trend was related to the 9½ Block Strategy, Pullin’s group began working to bring LEAD to Capitol Hill and the Chinatown- International District, he said.
Ballard also experienced an uptick in crime last summer, including drug dealing and “people shooting up in alleyways,” Ballard Chamber of Commerce President Mike Stewart said.
“I can’t connect the dots directly (to downtown), but I can tell you that a 9½ Block Strategy tailored for Ballard is something we need,” Stewart said.
Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown-ID Preservation and Development Authority, made a similar point.
“I don’t know whether people are being pushed here, but new people are showing up in the neighborhood,” she said, mentioning trash near homeless encampments, drag racing and small-scale drug dealing as ongoing challenges.
Several Chinatown-ID parks will get the Westlake Park treatment this summer, the mayor’s office announced recently. Small grants will help community organizations bring extra staff members, classes, temporary art installations and games to the sites.
Downtown Seattle Association President Jon Scholes said making Westlake Park more vibrant has helped police officers make the area around the park safer.
The association has been running the park through a contract with the city.
“To really create a welcoming public space for everyone, you need all of the above — consistent enforcement, eyes on the street and outreach to make sure you’re connecting people with services,” Scholes said.
Leroy Shumate, who has operated Leroy Menswear on Pike Street between Second and Third avenues since 1980, said there has been a dramatic change under the 9½ Block Strategy.
“It really truly did make a difference,” Shumate said, virtually halting the “horrible” drug dealing taking place in front of his store.
“100 percent” better, Shumate said.
Nearby, Greg Rosas, the owner of Ludi’s Restaurant & Lounge, said that since the crackdown there have been fewer people loitering outside his business during the day.
But the numbers grow in the evening, although “not nearly as bad” as it used to be, he said.
On a scale of one to 10, Rosas said, the problems rated a “nine” before the city acted. Now it has improved to a “five,” he said.
Katrina Hayes, 31, a regular bus rider waiting on Third Avenue, also cited a difference, while noting that after 10 p.m. “it gets really sketchy.”
Margaret Reid, 57, who lives downtown and commutes by bus to her job in Redmond, said Third Avenue used to be thick with drug dealers, thieves and panhandlers during the day.
“It’s much more comfortable,” Reid said, although, she added, there are places she avoids at night.
The police department has begun building on its work downtown: It partnered with University of Washington police last summer to bring a version of the 9½ Block Strategy to University Way Northeast. That resulted in 20 arrests over two days in September and outreach to homeless youth.
Lindsay, the mayor’s adviser, said the mayor isn’t ready to declare victory downtown.
“But after a decade or more of problems getting worse and worse within that area … we now have significant traction — a strategy that has shown good signs of success,” he said.