Amir Yousuf, the owner of International Cigar and Tobacco on Third Avenue between Pike and Pine streets, breathed a sigh of relief Thursday when he saw a couple of Seattle police bicycle officers stationed outside his downtown store.
A Seattle Police Department mobile command center was parked across the street from Yousuf’s shop while patrol SUVs made slow loops through the downtown core, providing the kind of police presence that hasn’t been seen downtown in months. Downtown “ambassadors,” conspicuous in their fluorescent yellow jackets, power washed cigarette butts and other debris from sidewalks, the scent of soap replacing the reek of urine.
Interim Seattle police Chief Adrian Diaz, who was behind the wheel of an unmarked black SUV, was also there, returning to the corner Thursday afternoon after responding to the latest fatal shooting at Third and Pine the night before.
Around 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, a boy believed to be 15 years old was shot in the abdomen on Pine, between the shuttered McDonald’s restaurant and the entrance to the Westlake Station, then ran west across Third, where he collapsed on the sidewalk, Diaz said. The boy died a short time later at Harborview Medical Center.
“Today, there’s a lot more of a presence than we’ve had in the past. We’re staffing through second and third watch” for the foreseeable future, Diaz said. This means officers will be out on the streets not just during the day but through the evening and early morning hours.
The teenager’s death was the second homicide at Third and Pine in four days and the fifth in the immediate area since 2019. The boy’s killing was followed closely by the homicide of a man found with significant head injuries in a parking lot on Capitol Hill just before 12:30 a.m. Thursday. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet released the identities of either victim.
The homicides were the ninth and 10th in the city so far this year.
While beefing up downtown patrols, police will also maintain a presence at 12th Avenue and South Jackson Street in Little Saigon, where officers cleared out an open-air drug market in recent weeks. Some of the people displaced by that police operation apparently migrated to Third and Pine, but by Thursday afternoon, only small clusters seemed to remain.
“We will have to figure out where that displacement went to but we don’t have that intel right now,” Diaz said in an impromptu curbside interview.
But with police already stretched thin in the midst of an ongoing staffing crisis, Diaz and small business owners said they desperately need commuters and office workers — people the chief referred to as “informal guardians” — to return downtown because criminals are far less likely to conduct business with so many eyes and ears around.
Yousuf, who has owned the tobacco shop for 25 years, has had a front-row seat to the street crime and drug use that spiked at the intersection during the pandemic. Three employees quit in the last month, he said, a stray bullet from a recent shooting came through his front window, and he’s had to fend off 10 to 20 shoplifters a day.
“After dark, there’s a whole illegal market out there. You can’t get in and out the door,” he said of the people who steal and sell merchandise from Target and other stores to support their drug habits. “On Third Avenue, everybody knows there’s problems.”
Yousuf and his remaining employees have breathed in so much secondhand fentanyl smoke that wafts into the store from the street that he joked the drug likely could be detected in their blood. He said his employees “are all shaken” by the recent gun violence.
“They’re good employees and I hope they’ll stay and it’ll get better and that everybody feels safer,” Yousuf said. “I want to see a long-term solution.”
Micheal Angelo Ledezma, the owner of Nuevo, a 500-square-foot hair salon in the Gibraltar Tower, closed for months during the pandemic and said that since reopening, his business is still down a good 40%. He misses seeing shoppers, restaurantgoers and people dressed up for a night at the theater — and wants to see them return, along with office workers employed by companies like Nordstrom and Amazon.
“Right now, we’re outnumbered by the people doing drugs out on the streets. We need people to be coming back downtown for the small businesses that are left,” he said. “I want to be hopeful, I try to be hopeful, but I’m going to wait a month.”
Diaz is acutely aware of the challenge his department faces in maintaining a police presence downtown over the long term without losing ground in Little Saigon. In a letter sent to department employees on Thursday, he announced a weekslong emphasis at the two crime hot spots, with nonpatrol personnel augmenting staffing at 12th Avenue and South Jackson to free up other officers to focus their efforts downtown. He’s approved overtime for emphasis shifts and is asking for volunteers to cover weekend shifts, according to the letter posted to the department’s online blotter.
Diaz, who worked as a downtown patrol officer for eight years early in his 25-year career, said that back then, there were 1,060 officers who could be deployed to respond to 911 calls or provide manpower for emphasis operations. Five years ago, that number was 1,316 officers. It now stands at 958.
Because of the staffing issues, response times to “priority one” calls — namely, shootings, robberies and other violent crimes — currently take about 7½ minutes, up from 6 minutes a couple of years ago, he said. For “priority two” calls, where a crime has been committed and the suspected perpetrator is still on site, it can take 30 to 60 minutes for officers to respond.
“It’s an issue and those times are not where we want to be,” Diaz said.
Mayor Bruce Harrell, who has promised to crack down on crime, released a statement Thursday calling the downtown violence “unacceptable and beyond tragic.”
He said police, community advocates and law enforcement partners would launch a collaborative effort to combat crime. He urged citizens to be “part of the solution” by considering applying to the Police Department, an option not viable for many downtown business owners.
Harrell and representatives from Seattle police, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Drug Enforcement Administration, King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Seattle city attorney’s office will hold a news conference Friday to provide updates on their collaborative efforts to combat crime and ensure public safety.
Diaz, standing on the corner of Third and Pine on Thursday, said that even with a diminished force, officers took 1,237 guns off the streets last year, similar to the number of weapons seized in the years before the pandemic.
And on Thursday, Diaz said officers arrested a man suspected of pushing a 62-year-old woman down a flight of stairs at the Chinatown-International District light-rail station on Wednesday morning and a short time later, stabbing a second person at a bus stop at 12th and Jackson.
“We have good people who every day are just trying to do the right things,” Diaz said of his officers. “We have a job to do and we know exactly what it is.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Sarah Grace Taylor contributed to this story.