Black tar heroin used to be the drug of choice in downtown Seattle, but that’s no longer true.

Bits of tinfoil, with black “snail trails” marking a pill’s skittering path across aluminum, are now windblown against chain link and brick, mostly replacing the orange caps and discarded needles that used to litter downtown alleys.

“I don’t think heroin is quite the drug it used to be,” said Capt. Steve Strand, commander of the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct. “Fentanyl is really the leader of all of the drugs we’re seeing.”

It’s been a little over six months since Seattle police launched an operation that first targeted open-air drug use at 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street in the Chinatown International District, then focused on seizing drugs, illegal weapons and stolen merchandise from the area around Third Avenue and Pine Street in the downtown retail core.

Strand figured that disrupting the drug market at 12th and Jackson would be fairly straightforward because the activity wasn’t anchored in the neighborhood and there was no specific reason for people to gather there. But he thought Third and Pine — with its confluence of tourism destinations, retail stores and public transit, as well as the area’s long history as a hub of drug and criminal activity — would require a longer, concentrated push to reduce illicit behavior and improve public safety.

He was right on both fronts.

The crowds that used to gather at 12th and Jackson haven’t returned. And while public safety problems persist throughout the Chinatown ID, Strand said the recent removal of an encampment near the troubled intersection, moving 40 people into housing, has helped further curb street disorder there.

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Meanwhile, downtown residents say the police emphasis — along with the closure of a troubled bus stop, stepped-up street cleaning and graffiti removal, and the introduction of more public art — has incrementally improved conditions. The number of drug users who congregated along stretches of Third Avenue a year ago has noticeably thinned, with smaller groups now stretching along Third from roughly Pine to Yesler Way.

There are still pockets of open drug and alcohol use, particularly on Pike Street and in the alleys off Pike between Second and Fourth avenues, but the violence, thefts, fights and screams of distress have all seemingly lessened.

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“In the broadest sense, it seems like the craziness collapsed by almost two-thirds,” said Mark DeWeirdt, who lives in a condominium building on Second Avenue. “We’ve still got a lot to go. But, yeah, we are leaning in the right direction. My wife [is no longer saying] ‘I’ve got to get out of here’ every single week.”

DeWeirdt is hopeful conditions will continue to improve and credits city leaders for the positive changes he’s noticed, but said he doesn’t want to see downtown backslide into the chaos that reigned during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the streets feel safer, DeWeirdt said those who remain are a rougher, meaner crowd who seem more entrenched in criminal activity.

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“There are still so many opportunities for those bad things to happen because there’s still so much of it out there,” he said.

Fentanyl fueling street crime

Downtown residents still catch whiffs of urine, still wake to the sounds of gunfire and sirens, though not quite as often as they did six or 12 months ago. They still occasionally see syringes hanging from the arms of those who gather near Third and Pine, but they’re more likely to see the bent-over figures of people high on fentanyl, oblivious to the world around them.

The street drug, both in powder form and pressed into M-30 pills known as “blues,” is driving much of downtown’s lawlessness and retail theft, said Strand, the West Precinct captain. The pills are heated on pieces of tinfoil, and the smoke is sucked in with straws.

Strand speculated that fentanyl has surpassed black tar heroin as Seattle’s predominant street drug because it’s less expensive and easier to manufacture and smuggle.

The pills are cheap, selling for as little as $2 or $3 apiece, with prices continuing to fall, he said. They produce a stronger high than heroin but last only about 20 minutes, so most people addicted to the drug need 30 to 40 hits a day.

“It’s such a horrible, strong drug that really affects their mental well-being,” Strand said. “You can drive down the street and see somebody who has obviously just used … fentanyl and can barely stand and is bent over and looks like they’re about ready to collapse, and when you come back in the other direction 15 minutes later, they’re up and walking around like nothing happened. Then they’re back to finding the next one.”

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The addiction fuels a cycle of theft, with stolen merchandise sold or traded for more drugs, he said.

“Target is our top location in the West Precinct for crime,” Strand said of the retail giant at Second Avenue and Union Street, where police have partnered with loss-prevention officers on anti-theft operations. “It’s really sad how frequent it is.”

Crime data comparing 2022 with previous years is difficult to parse because 2020 and 2021 were so unusual and saw a spike in violent crime across the city. But police and residents say the overt lawlessness seen downtown at the peak of the pandemic has been tamped down.

And while there is some data illustrating the effectiveness of the current police operation, it’s incomplete, a consequence of a staffing crisis that has seen more than 400 officers leave the department over the past two years, said Lt. Rob Brown, the operation commander for SPD’s downtown emphasis. Staffing problems have also restricted the number of undercover operations police can conduct, Brown said, limiting the drugs, stolen goods and guns seized during investigations.

But the available data still paints a picture of what officers are encountering.

Over roughly 12 weeks — from April to early June and mid-August to mid-September — police seized more than 2,100 “blues” and 98 grams of fentanyl in the area around Third and Pine, compared with about 16 grams of heroin and 31 grams of methamphetamine.

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Officers made nearly 140 arrests for new offenses and outstanding misdemeanor and felony warrants in that time and confiscated knives, handguns, BB guns, machetes, brass knuckles and, in one case, a large ax, according to SPD reports.

Thieves hit one fine art business twice this spring, first stealing a $19,000 mammoth tusk in April, and a month later, taking $9,000 worth of merchandise and causing an estimated $10,000 in property damage, according to the reports.

Officers have recovered some stolen property, ranging from jeans and shoes to paper towels and liquor, as well as wireless earphones, suitcases, a weed trimmer, camp stove and a power washer that a man claimed to have bought in an alley for $80.

Police have responded to violent assaults, and an officer witnessed a homicide at Third and Pike in August. A few weeks ago, officers backed up medics who were unable to save a person who overdosed in a bus shelter.

While King County Jail officials continue to limit bookings to people arrested on suspicion of felony offenses, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and misdemeanor domestic-violence assault, Strand said officials recently agreed to book people whose names appear on the Seattle city attorney’s list of 100 or so repeat misdemeanor offenders — and those cases are now being prosecuted more quickly.

And while police can cite people for smoking drugs in bus shelters or within 25 feet of doorways, Strand said SPD doesn’t have a system for tracking those people, who under a new state law can only be arrested after twice being diverted to drug treatment programs.

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Officers are still referring people to social service providers as part of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, known as LEAD, but Strand worries those providers are nearing capacity.

That’s why SPD continues to focus its downtown efforts on arresting people selling drugs, committing violent crimes and engaging in predatory behavior, he said.

The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed 35 felony drug dealing charges against 33 defendants arrested by Seattle police at or near Third and Pike between January and August, according to spokesperson Casey McNerthney. Twenty-four cases involved the sale of fentanyl, six involved meth, four involved crack cocaine and one involved heroin, he said.

Of the 33 defendants, 10 were also charged with felony gun crimes.

“It’s slow, but it’s happening”

Three patrol SUVs sped south on Third on a recent Wednesday as Strand and Brown walked the retail core, stopping occasionally to check on people or tell them they can’t have drug paraphernalia on the street.

“The Triple Door has been hit a few times with windows being broken. Wild Ginger is open and Benaroya Hall recently reopened,” Strand said, naming a music venue, restaurant and performance hall as Brown stepped away to find out what prompted the lights and sirens. “I really want to provide that safety so businesses reopen.”

“That call was a street robbery down around Yesler,” Brown said after hanging up. “They have a victim, they have suspect information and it just occurred.”

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The police commanders popped into Tiger Sugar, the first of a popular Taiwanese bubble tea franchise to open in the state. Open only a couple of months, the employee tip jar was stolen three times during the first two weeks of August.

“Sometimes when we open, we have to ask people to leave our gated area, and they sometimes come in and harass customers,” said manager Jimmy Bach. “We’ve had to bolt down some of our items.”

Bach said the bubble tea chain may have overlooked crime on Third when choosing the location but said he had “no regrets” and that the public safety problems are “something we can overcome” with help from police and city officials.

Later, as Strand and Brown posed for a photo with a couple from Louisiana, a man walked by and criticized downtown policing with a string of expletives.

The visitors’ take?

“You’ve got a much busier, cleaner city,” said Len Slidell, who last visited Seattle 27 years ago and was in town with his wife Evelyn for an Alaskan cruise. Asked if he felt safe downtown, Slidell shrugged and said, “We’ve been OK [but] we’re seeing a lot of homeless people.”

Minutes after the couple continued their downtown tour, Seattle resident James Braddy stopped Brown to see if his referral to the LEAD program had been approved. Brown, who had signed off on the referral earlier in the day, sent him to the Belltown offices of a social service agency that provides housing and other help to LEAD participants.

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Though the idea of opening a downtown police substation is being kicked around, with a variety of offers from property owners, “our chief says he’d rather have us out here interacting with people than behind glass,” Strand said.

“With short staffing, we just can’t staff it 24/7, and if it says ‘police’ on the doors, we don’t want to have it locked.”

Strand and Brown are constantly assessing where drug use and crime displaced from Third and Pine are cropping up — and moving officers to those emerging hot spots — as part of SPD’s plan to continue its downtown operation for “the foreseeable future,” Strand said.

“We have officers out here all night and all day, running from one place to the next,” Strand said. “Today, you’ve noticed a lot of police officers and not a lot of bad behavior.”

Leslie Buker, who lives in a condo on Third Avenue between Pike and Pine, said she now recognizes and exchanges smiles with officers working the downtown operation.

“Just having more police out here is not just to tell people to stop doing things,” she said. “They’re having conversations and engagements, and so many people walk up and talk to the police.”

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Buker said despite fires constantly set in the alley behind her building, downtown public safety has improved since two people were killed by gunfire in four days at Third and Pine last winter. She’s looking forward to Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing brand, moving into the old Macy’s building, and completion of a new development at Third and Virginia Street. Boards are starting to come off windows, she said, but it can still be scary walking home at night.

“It’s slow, but it’s happening,” Buker said of the changes in her neighborhood. “A lot of people fled during the pandemic, so anything that can bring them back is awesome.”