For many of the people who work around Third Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle, Wednesday’s mass shooting was another reminder that the city has yet to come to grips with a cyclical pattern of street crime in one of its busiest neighborhoods.
Less than 24 hours after a shooting outside the McDonald’s at Third and Pine that claimed one life and injured seven others, many of the stores, restaurants and offices in the heart of the city’s shopping and tourist district were open for business. Dozens of police officers patrolled the streets and private security guards stood outside many of the businesses and offices.
Yet inside many of those businesses, the mood among employers and employees alike was a mix of fear and frustration over a problem that predates Wednesday’s shooting and that is making it harder and costlier to keep doing business downtown.
“It’s just one of those things where conditions remain the same for so long, you just get used to them,” said Jeff Wilmot, vice president of operations for Tukwila-based Moneytree, who was at the company’s Third Avenue location Thursday to reassure employees and work with investigators. “The police do the best that they can — I just feel like they need more resources,” he added.
At a news conference Thursday, city officials were quick to push back on the idea that Wednesday’s shooting resulted from lack of resources or broader policy failures at City Hall.
“This incident last night is not related to a staffing issue in the Seattle Police Department,” said Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, adding that the department is currently hiring more officers than it is losing through attrition. The cause of Wednesday’s shooting, she said, was “people with guns who shouldn’t have had the guns, in an area firing shots.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan added that downtown businesses face a range of challenges, such as the broad decline of “brick and mortar” retail, that are not specific to Seattle. But the mayor, who cut short a business trip to Washington, D.C., to deal with the aftermath of the shooting, promised the city would “make sure [businesses] are supported and there isn’t a public safety reason for them to move.”
Still, it may take a while for those reassurances to sink in. On Thursday, the Pike-Pine neighborhood was something of a ghost town. The crowds that often throng the shops and restaurants at lunch time were noticeably thin — in part because some employees did not come to work.
Likewise, some store managers reported lower-than-normal sales and higher-than-normal anxieties among workers concerned about coming downtown. “I would say more than a little worried,” is how one worker described the mood at a clothing store near the site of the shooting.
Some area store owners and employers were offering stepped-up security measures — such as escorts for Amazon’s employees at the company’s Third Avenue building and other buildings. (Two of the people shot were Amazon employees, the company confirmed.)
Yet some employees and managers said these new measures would do little to address the deeper problems that have made the several-block area between Pike Street and Denny Way — an area nicknamed “The Blade” — into a magnet for criminals and drug dealers as well as people struggling with homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues. Many described a sense of powerlessness in the face of a constant presence of petty criminals who often seem to operate with impunity.
Pamela Morales, owner of the Simple Life clothing store at Second and Pine, said shoplifters have become so brazen, often entering the store in groups to distract the clerks, that she has been forced to add security cameras and additional employees — steps many other businesses have taken.
“They would try to distract you as you were working, while the other person was going around and taking something,” said Barbara Hagen, who works for Morales. The shoplifting situation got so bad last summer, Morales said, that twice she had to chase down shoplifters herself to try to get merchandise back.
Morales seems an exception. Many stores have safety policies that strictly forbid employees from attempting to stop shoplifters or other criminals.
“We can’t touch, accuse or pursue,” said one clothing store employee.
Many businesses have already adopted stepped-up security measures — video cameras and, in some cases, armed guards — to deal with the threat of street crime. But most felt the problem would only worsen until the city confronts the deeper issues of homelessness, addiction, and mental illness that now haunt much of the downtown core. “Third Avenue has a reputation,” said one shop employee who asked not to be identified.
Several business owners and employees said that the city had stepped up street patrols last summer, but that police presence appeared to have tapered off again. “They were doing more and then they cut back,” said Moneytree’s Wilmot. “We used to see them all the time and now it’s much more infrequently.”
Complaints about poor police presence was a constant among employees of businesses in the Pike-Pine corridor. Most readily acknowledged that individual officers were working hard, but said that the city hasn’t allocated enough officers to adequately patrol the neighborhood, which made officers unwilling to intervene in all but the most serious infractions.
For all their complaints, some business owners and managers seemed to think Wednesday’s shooting, the third in downtown in less than 48 hours, might be enough to shock City Hall into taking action. Several said they expected to meet with city and police officials in coming days to discuss potential steps.
In the meantime, several said that despite the severity of this week’s incidents, they had no plans to close down or make significant changes to scheduling.
“We’re not going to be intimidated by the street element,” said one business owner, who nonetheless declined to give his name for fear of reprisals by those same elements.