The Seattle police are back, the chief says. That confirms what some of us had suspected — which is that for a time they were gone.
Truth unexpectedly seeped out at the big news conference about Seattle cleaning up its downtown drug markets.
The police chief, nine months on the job, was describing how her officers had arrested 100 suspected drug dealers and thieves in one of the bigger sweeps in the city’s history. The officers did it without using force once.
“The Seattle Police Department is back in business!” Chief Kathleen O’Toole announced.
OK, but … that means you were out of business before?
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“That’s sure what it felt like to us — that they had closed up shop,” says Leroy Shumate. “You would see officers around sometimes but they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do anything. They were paralyzed. They seemed frustrated about it, too.”
For 35 years Shumate has run Leroy Menswear on Pike Street between Second and Third avenues. It’s the heart of what Seattle police call “The Blade” — a stretch of blocks that has become both an open-air drug bazaar and the most violent crime hot spot in the city.
Shumate has seen crime ebb and flow right along with the news conferences. What was different during the past year or two, he says, was a complete stand-down by the police.
“That became the easiest place on the West Coast to buy and sell drugs,” he said, pointing at a now closed-off parking lot across from his shop. “There were dealers there from L.A., from all over. They would talk about it — about how you could sell here without worrying anyone would do anything to stop you. This became quite the famous little drugstore.”
What’s again different this time is top city leaders now are basically acknowledging all of that is true.
Last week it was revealed by Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman that Mayor Ed Murray’s office had concluded internally that selling hard drugs on the streets of Seattle had become effectively legalized. They blamed the King County prosecutor for refusing to press it as a crime.
Police have in the past also blamed City Attorney Pete Holmes for lax prosecution of some misdemeanors, saying there’s no point in arresting anyone.
Both prosecutors deny this. Regardless, at the same time, the feds had put the police under a consent decree for misusing force, and the department had shake-ups in the police commander ranks and general management turmoil.
Add it all up and I guess it equaled a “gone fishing” sign up at the station house.
Police weren’t just AWOL on drug dealing. Last year many residents (including me) vented that police seemed unable to respond to property crimes. Car prowls and thefts had soared.
I saw former Mayor Mike McGinn recently and he said something I hadn’t realized: Total crime in the city last year jumped at the fastest clip in more than 25 years. I looked it up and he’s right — major crimes, which includes both violent and property crimes, went up 9 percent, the highest percentage increase for Seattle since the 1980s (though the 2014 jump was from a near historic low).
How much was because police were effectively out of business? How much was just chance?
There’s no way to know. But it sure seems the system’s paralysis was costly to the city’s residents.
The good news is the mayor and the new chief are acknowledging it. A focus on property crimes appears to be sticking. (Car prowls and thefts are down 20 percent from last year.) They also have gotten police, prosecutors, the feds and social service groups all on the same page, for now, about ways to clean up downtown without full-on relighting the failed war on drugs.
Shumate says Murray even visited his shop to promise to do better.
“He made it real personal,” Shumate said. “He said he knew they were behind.”
I visited The Blade three times this week — once during the arrest sweep, once at night and again on Friday, after the most overt police action had tapered. The city’s got its work cut out for it.
On Wednesday, the place was swarming with officers. After dark on Thursday, though, there wasn’t a single one anywhere. The drug bazaar raged on — I saw dealers selling from the exact spots called out in police videotapes at the news conference earlier that day.
On Friday the scene wasn’t so chaotic, but there was still plenty of “you looking? you looking?” as I walked down Third Avenue. It shows how ingrained the problem is that police could arrest more than a hundred people and the very next day, in broad daylight, others are right back at it.
But I also saw person after person come up to the cops to thank them, sometimes profusely. One woman wrapped a startled officer in a hug.
“It’s so much better now,” she said, in tears.
“Stay,” a man said, to a bike cop at the corner of Third and Union. “Please, stay.”
I reminded Shumate that the newspaper had interviewed him before, for a story with the headline: “Beefed up police presence credited with drop in downtown crime.” That was from seven years ago.
Why will this time be different?
“Hope?” he said. “I don’t know, the police say they’re back in business. I’m gonna take the good news where I can get it.”