City officials and business leaders say they are embarking on an ambitious effort to shut down open-air drug dealing and associated crime in Seattle’s downtown core with its new “9½ Block Strategy.”
Acknowledging the presence of open-air drug dealing and associated crime in Seattle’s downtown core, city and police officials and business leaders say they are embarking on an ambitious effort to shut down the markets and take the most violent offenders off the street.
Bus stops will be moved, alleys restricted and newspaper boxes used by drug dealers removed as part of the new “9½ Block Strategy,” which refers to the small section of downtown between First and Fourth avenues and Union and Stewart streets where much of the city’s crime is concentrated.
The strategy will also include coordinated outreach to help people living on the street and buying drugs downtown, along with a crackdown focused on gun-toting dealers who return to the same blocks day after day.
“We needed to come up with a concerted, multipronged approach to disrupt that and ultimately break it,” said Scott Lindsay, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s special assistant on public safety.
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Lindsay and Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas declined to discuss specific law-enforcement measures, except to say that Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole has been meeting with federal agencies.
Murray has been under increasing pressure since taking office in January 2014 to clean up the retail corridor that some store owners, tourism promoters and many citizens have described as an intimidating gantlet of disorder and illegal activity.
In 2014, Seattle police received a staggering 10,000 calls for service from the targeted section, officials say. The entire city accounts for fewer than 900,000 calls each year.
Police records show assaults and other crimes clustered near downtown’s drug markets.
In a Jan. 28 email with Lindsay and others, the mayor wrote, “We are significantly behind in putting together a response.”
The email prompted Lindsay to respond by pointing a finger at King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s scaled-back approach to drug offenses.
Three months later, the city is planning to open a storefront operations center on Second Avenue, between Pike and Pine streets, where police, prosecutors and social-service providers will share space, identify the most serious offenders for arrest and collaborate on what steps to take.
The Seattle Police Department will assign one lieutenant, on a full-time basis, to manage enforcement, and another to keep track of arrests, convictions and participation in the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which connects low-level offenders with treatment and housing.
Assistant Police Chief Steve Wilske said additional officers will be brought in, joining West Precinct officers and others already working on a recently formed neighborhood response team.
One assistant city attorney will work full time out of the operations center and one deputy King County prosecutor will assist on a part-time basis. LEAD case managers and supervisors will work with them and police to help determine who is eligible for the program.
The Metropolitan Improvement District (MID), a street-cleaning and outreach organization funded by downtown property owners, is leasing the storefront and providing eyes on the ground.
Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, which founded and is aligned with the MID, called the strategy “Just the type of effort we’ve been advocating for a number of years.”
“What we like here is a comprehensive approach that goes beyond throwing a few more police officers out on a corner for a couple of weeks,” Scholes said.
“What we’re seeing is the mayor calling this what it is: the most pervasive drug market in the city existing for 20 years next to the best farmers market in the city. We don’t enjoy broadcasting that message … but it’s no secret to the 200,000-plus people coming to work here every day or to visitors or to people living downtown that we have a problem, and we’re not going to hide it.”
At first, data on offenders will be compiled manually while technology is added to improve information sharing, officials say.
“In the meantime, though, we’re going to be building the airplane while we fly it,” Lindsay said.
What sets the strategy apart from past efforts, which have achieved mixed success, is a new emphasis on taking turf back from drug dealers by altering the physical landscape of certain blocks.
For instance, King County Metro Transit has agreed to move busy bus stops on each side of Third Avenue between Pike and Pine streets one block to the south, in early May.
Drug dealers and users now take advantage of nooks and crannies in the buildings between Pike and Pine while mixing in with people waiting for buses, Lindsay says.
“It creates, in effect, a wall of commuters who make enforcement and engagement with the drug-dealing population much more complicated,” he said.
The new locations for the bus stops stand adjacent to buildings with sheer walls offering less cover for illicit business. Officials believe offenders won’t move with the stops because studies show that drug peddlers are “very place-based,” Joncas said.
To further make life difficult for the dealers who use newspaper boxes to stash drugs, and for others who hawk shoplifted items and drink alcohol, owners of the boxes agreed to their temporary removal.
Murray says he snapped a photo on his cellphone one night while walking by.
“It’s like a liquor bar, all covered with bottles,” he said about the boxes. “People were standing out there drinking, so there’s no way you’re going to walk up and buy a newspaper.”
Concrete-block seats in front of a food court on Third Avenue, between Pike and Pine streets, also have been removed, and several alleys in the area will be restricted to business uses. Additionally, a parking lot at the corner of Second Avenue and Pike Street, where open drug activity has flourished, has been fenced off.
The Seattle Department of Transportation will install signs with the new alley limitations on Friday. The signs will read, “No admittance. Alley closed to entry by general public. Tenant and business access only.” They’ll warn that violators may be punished by a fine of up to $1,000 and jail for up to 90 days.
Murray says he waited to put the plan in motion until he was assured that police reforms to curtail excessive force and biased policing were taking root under a 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.
“There’s been, you know, a lot of complaining about this area since I’ve come into office,” he said. “But we needed to hire a (police) chief. We needed to get a command staff in place. We needed to get the training under way.”
Now, with increasingly positive reports from the federal monitor overseeing the reforms, Murray says he is comfortable that police have been given training and techniques to operate in a “pretty dicey area” where homelessness, mental illness and untreated addiction are part of the equation.
Officers must be able to “sort that out from the people who are … drug dealers carrying guns,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington will be watching the implementation of the new strategy, spokesman Doug Honig said in an email.
“We hope that the approach serves to expand the promising LEAD program,” he said. “We’ll be watching to see that it enables people to receive needed mental health and drug treatment services, and that it isn’t pursued in a counterproductive way that locks people up for minor offenses.”
Curbing drug-related offenses should have the knock-on effect of reducing crime overall, the city officials say.
“Shoplifting is going to reduce dramatically,” Joncas said.
If the strategy is successful, they want to do the same thing in other neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill and Pioneer Square.
“It’s difficult,” Murray said. “I think one of the challenges for us is going to be to stick with it. And then to take it to scale.”
Information in this article, originally published April 21, 2015, was corrected April 22, 2015. A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association. In addition, the graphic in the previous version incorrectly showed the location of a storefront operations center on Second Avenue between Union and Pike streets. It will be located on Second Avenue between Pike and Pine streets.