Seattle police officers Jim Garner and Tom Christenson, who patrol one of the city's high-crime areas, believe they deter crime just by their presence, which also calms the fears of citizens.

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A man dressed in green camouflage yelled and waved his arms outside the plate-glass windows of the Gap in downtown Seattle.

Then, for several minutes, he stood still in the middle of the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue as pedestrians streamed by, giving him wide berth.

Seattle police Officers Jim Garner and Tom Christenson watched the man from the balcony outside Westlake Center, a favorite vantage for the foot-beat patrolmen who’ve been partners since January. The man, they said, had previously spent time at Western State Hospital after committing a violent felony.

“If we see him, we keep an eye on him,” said Garner. “An arrest could probably help him because I think he’s probably off his medications … but we’re not at the point yet where we can actually do that. In the meantime, we just wait and keep tabs on him and hope he doesn’t hurt anybody.”

Garner and Christenson are responsible for a six-block beat where the mentally ill, the homeless and the drug-addicted mingle daily with the commuters, shoppers and tourists who flow into Seattle’s downtown core.

The area they patrol has historically been a high-crime zone, with nearly 1,000 incidents reported in a one-year period ending in August, according to a Seattle Times analysis of crime data. During that time, police responded to 83 assaults, 49 robberies and 86 narcotics violations and made 233 warrant arrests in Garner and Christenson’s six-block beat.

On their beat, the two respond to 911 calls and make arrests, but a big part of their job can’t be quantified by crime stats or call volumes. They say they deter crime and ease public discomfort just by walking around.

“Historically, it’s been a lousy part of town,” Christenson said of the area between Union Street and Olive Way, and Third and Fifth avenues, where he patrols with Garner.

They pay special attention to the 1500 block of Third Avenue, between Pike and Pine streets, because “it’s kind of a scary block for people, where a lot of our citizens feel uncomfortable,” said Garner.

From walking the same streets almost every day, they know the thieves, dope dealers and usual troublemakers who hang around the Pike-Pine corridor and frequent “The Blade,” a stretch of Pike from the Pike Place Market to Fourth Avenue where a variety of drugs are bought and sold.

A constant struggle

While citywide crime rates have dipped to nearly 50-year lows, citizen complaints about street disorder — things such as open-air drug dealing, public intoxication, graffiti and vandalism — have been a constant in downtown Seattle, even after foot beats were expanded several years ago. Additional officers such as Garner and Christenson were pulled from other assignments to boost foot and bike patrols this year.

The area patrolled by Garner and Christenson is within the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct, which covers roughly the area west of Interstate 5 from Discovery Park to Safeco Field. All of the department’s bicycle units — composed of 35 officers and four sergeants — along with eight of 10 foot-beat officers are assigned to the precinct.

Bicycle and foot cops spend most of their time in downtown, Belltown, Pioneer Square and the Chinatown International District. The general area also falls within the boundaries of King County Metro Transit’s ride-free bus zone.

“If you want one man’s opinion, the biggest problems downtown are Third and Yesler, Third and James, Third and Pike, Third and Pine, and Third and Bell,” Christenson said. “The common denominator is free buses,” which are often used by criminals to quickly get out of an area until things cool off. Garner and Christenson say walking a foot beat is an effective way to help keep the peace and improve perceptions of safety.

“We can walk around here and have minimal contact … but we’re seen by at least 1,000 people,” Garner said. “… If you wander around, you’re going to see something. We try to go to the hot spots and just see who is out and about.”

Garner, 40, who is also a hostage negotiator, and Christenson, 42, a former vice detective, both grew up in the region, both are married and both earned bachelor’s degrees from Western Washington University. Christenson is the father of an 8-year-old girl; Garner, who also has a master’s degree, is the son of a retired Seattle cop.

Starting time

On a recent weekday, Garner and Christenson walked out of the West Precinct headquarters on Virginia Street at 10:37 a.m., at the start of their nine-hour shift. While the day would end up being their quietest since spring — no fights, foot chases or arrests — their interactions with citizens, upstanding and otherwise, demonstrated how they keep the peace and respond to public complaints while staying within the legal bounds of their jobs.

Once they hit Pike Street, they checked out a problem alley, behind the Joshua Green Building, that’s been the topic of numerous citizen emails to police commanders.

“A ton of drug activity takes place right here,” Garner said, nodding to an alcove in the alley between Third and Fourth avenues. The alcove reeked of urine, and bits of discarded syringes littered the pavement.

A sketchy-looking man peered into the alley from Pike Street, and Garner called out a hello. The man ignored him and kept walking.

“Our jobs are really ruled by the Constitution,” Garner said. “… I think the public has the perception police officers can stop anyone, anytime they want to, and that’s not the case. We have to have reasonable suspicion or probable cause.”

As they left the alley and circled the block, the officers made their first pass along Third Avenue between Pike and Pine. The street was crowded with people waiting for buses or lingering outside a tobacco shop and a check-cashing business. A man in an electric wheelchair rolled by.

“Good, good. More police presence. Get the bums out of here,” the man said.

Back at the alley, Garner spotted an older man in a dirty sweatshirt rifling through a pile of garbage. “Let’s see what this guy is doing,” he said, passing two restaurant cooks on a smoke break.

“They’re obviously doing their part to clean up this area and we’ve definitely seen a difference, but it’s not solved,” said Matt, one of the cooks, who declined to give his last name. “But what is the solution, right? It’s more of a social thing, and so many people are trying to find the solution to drug addicts and the homeless.”

The man in the dirty sweatshirt showed Garner a photocopied state Department of Corrections ID, and the officer checked with a dispatcher for outstanding warrants. The check came back clean and Garner escorted the man out of the alley, pointing out a no-trespassing sign and warning the man he could be arrested if he returned.

Leaving the alley, Garner and Christenson came across two bicycle officers who had just arrested a man on a felony warrant, his hands cuffed behind him as he sat on a bench. “Where were you guys when he took off running?” one of the bike cops asked with a laugh.

A calming presence

“Walking around really is a great deterrent to crime,” Garner said as the officers headed south on Fourth. “There’s no way to quantify how many crimes we prevent just by our presence, but it does happen.”

The officers continued their slow, random circuit, making their way to Westlake Center.

“Let’s go see what the kids are doing,” said Garner as the officers rounded the corner of Fourth and Pine to a spot across from Macy’s.

It was a little after 1 p.m., and about a dozen young people stood in a cluster, smoking cigarettes and texting on cellphones.

“It makes people feel uncomfortable having a bunch of street kids hanging around, but if we asked them to leave, we’d be out of bounds because there are no laws against loitering and it’s a public sidewalk,” Garner said. “They’re loud, they act boisterous, but they’re very compliant and for the most part very polite kids.”

Familiar turf

A couple of hours later, Garner and Christenson again walked by Westlake Park, which is bordered on the east by the Seaboard Building, where Bill Mackay has lived for 12 years.

Mackay, president of Friends of Westlake Park, said he witnessed a domestic-violence incident a few days earlier at the corner of Pike Street and Fifth Avenue, and called 911. Before the light had even changed, he said, a plainclothes officer arrived at the scene, followed seconds later by an officer in a patrol car and another on foot.

“For a guy living here, that’s not unusual,” Mackay said of the police response.

Over the course of the afternoon, Garner and Christenson discussed a shoplifting suspect with a couple of loss-prevention officers; escorted two heroin junkies into an alley to rouse a friend who’d passed out next to a trash bin; and conducted a “business check” on The Turf, a usually rowdy bar that was packed but peaceful.

As 5 p.m. rolled around, they watched the “shift change” that occurs each weekday, when departing office workers flood downtown streets. Walking east on Pine, the officers came across a young woman in obvious pain.

“Hey, what’s the matter?” Christenson asked, but the woman rebuffed Garner and Christenson’s offers of help, leaving them no option but to walk away.

“She’s not a prostitute, just a heavy, heavy drug user,” Christenson said. “She’s got her good days and bad, and this is clearly one of the bad.”

Returning again to Westlake Center, the officers climbed the stairs to the balcony.

“Tom and I like to come up here occasionally because you can see trouble from afar. You can survey the park and see clear up Pine,” Garner said.

That’s when they spotted the man in camouflage outside the Gap.

“He’s got mental-health problems … but we don’t have enough to do an involuntary commit on him,” Garner said, referring to the 72-hour hold officers can use to commit people to a mental-health facility if they’re deemed an imminent danger to themselves or others.

“It’s frustrating,” Garner said. “Some of these people have 50, 60, 70 arrests … and they’re still committing crimes.” But unless officers catch them in the act, there’s nothing they can do.

As the man in camouflage stalked off north along Fifth Avenue, a call came over the radio. “There’s a report of a fight up the street,” Christenson said. The officers quickly made their way back down to street level, but as they reached the sidewalk, a dispatcher informed them: “We got another call; they were just playing around.”

After a final loop, Garner and Christenson began their walk back to precinct headquarters.

“It’s really been unusually quiet today,” Garner said. “But it’s heartening to see people are getting along and that there haven’t been any problems.”

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or

Seattle Times staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.