A plan by Seattle police to crack down on “disorderly conduct” within 25 feet of transit stops along Third Avenue — set to take effect Thursday — was put on hold Wednesday after Mayor Bruce Harrell stepped in to postpone it.
The last-minute decision by the mayor’s office delays what would have constituted a novel approach by police to Third Avenue safety concerns and a possibly significant expansion of the types of behavior cited there. Police had planned to begin using the city’s criminal code regulating “disorderly conduct on buses” in the area, which includes a broad range of activity such as smoking, playing loud music, littering, drinking alcohol, “loud, raucous and harassing behavior,” gambling and any “other conduct that is inconsistent with the intended use and purpose of the transit facility, transit station or transit vehicle.”
West Precinct Capt. Steve Strand confirmed in an email Tuesday that police were intending on “using a new approach to apply established criminal codes” along Third Avenue. On Wednesday morning, Strand said police already were issuing warnings to people and were to begin enforcement Thursday.
But on Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson for Harrell, Jamie Housen, said enforcement would not proceed as planned.
“Today’s SPD efforts with regard to disorderly bus-stop conduct were educational and informational,” Housen said in an email. “At the direction of the Mayor’s Office, any decisions on enforcement have been postponed.”
Asked why the enforcement was being delayed, Housen said it was “to allow more time to reset norms and to evaluate what enforcement strategy is most appropriate and effective.”
In a follow-up email, Strand said the mayor’s office would have the “most accurate information” on the current plan for enforcement.
“We plan to continue our uniform police presence with enforcement action when necessary to restore order,” he said.
Plans for a new approach to enforcement gained momentum in recent weeks as businesses and government officials have increasingly voiced their alarm about criminal activity along Third Avenue, a long-beleaguered section of downtown hit particularly hard by the evaporation of foot traffic during the pandemic and the closing of businesses, including Macy’s. A spate of recent shootings has pushed the area into sharper focus.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis said the novel, transit-based approach was spearheaded by leadership within the department’s West Precinct. It’s a “creative” idea that could help to “mitigate” some of the longstanding issues on Third Avenue, said Lewis, whose district includes downtown.
“We certainly have a lot of illegal conduct happening close to the transit stations, close to Third Avenue, that create a chilling effect on people wanting to go downtown,” he said.
At the same time, Lewis said, it’s an approach that’s unlikely to fundamentally alter the reality on Third, namely because disorderly conduct is, at most, a misdemeanor.
“I know there’s a temptation to make a bunch of quick, easy-enforcement cases, but the reality is misdemeanor enforcement isn’t enough to get these guys to change up their act,” Lewis said. He prefers a long-term strategy of either pursuing felony cases or referring individuals to JustCARE, a program that works to get people who cycle through the legal system into supportive housing.
Bus stops are ubiquitous up and down the corridor, meaning many stretches of the street fall within 25 feet of one. Of particular note is the area on Third near Pike and Pine streets — known as the Blade to many — that is both a hub for transit access and a gathering place for people buying and selling drugs or other merchandise. The curbs of the long blocks on Third are mostly painted red and yellow and reserved for buses.
Third Avenue is the city’s main thoroughfare for buses and one of the country’s busiest, with close to 300 buses passing through per hour. Cars and other unpermitted vehicles are barred from using the street between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day.
Harrell has made it known he intends to reshape Third Avenue, as well as 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street in Little Saigon International District, into a more tourist- and foot-traffic-friendly area — a goal set by many mayors before.
This month, he forecast that transit would play a role in his vision for Third, saying the city was considering closing some bus stops. “We will be working with partners in Metro on solutions to what we’re seeing and hearing from the riders and the residents of downtown Seattle, including improved transit access,” he said during a news conference with local law enforcement.
In recent days, a mobile police precinct van has set up shop on Third. The street was only sparsely populated Wednesday morning, a change from weeks prior when the sidewalks doorways were often crowded with people. In addition to the van, police cruisers drove up and down the street, flashing lights and pulling over to talk with people on the sidewalk. Officers in pairs strolled up and down the sidewalks, while police on bicycles circled the block.
The now-delayed move toward transit-based enforcement comes following ongoing discussions among downtown interest groups, businesses, law enforcement and government representatives. During a video meeting last Thursday, members of the Seattle Police Department, King County Sheriff’s Office and King County Metro Transit police met with representatives from the Downtown Seattle Association, Amazon, Moneytree, McDonald’s and others with a vested interest in the state of Third Avenue.
“As I understand, they’re looking at creating one long bus stop along Third Avenue and then enforcing the rules and regulations surrounding behavior in a bus stop,” said David Santillanes, who owns the McDonald’s on Third and Pine and attended Thursday’s meeting.
Santillanes said he supports any effort to “restore civility” to the area. “We’re all about, How do we create a safe environment and welcoming environment to everyone?” he said.
Olga Sagan, who recently closed her Piroshky Piroshky bakery on Third, has also participated in recent conversations with police. As she understood the discussion, the transit-oriented enforcement is a way to “try to find a loophole for the city or the police to do their job.”
On the future of Third, she said, “The best path forward is for people to start caring about it — recognizing we have a problem and working collaboratively with all the parts of government.”
Third Avenue became primarily a bus corridor in 2018, when car traffic was restricted to nighttime hours — part of an effort to improve transit flow as the Alaskan Way Viaduct came down. The city first began banning vehicle traffic in the mornings and evenings in 2005, as the bus tunnel underwent retrofits for light rail.
In a 2018 report on Third Avenue, the Downtown Seattle Association raised concerns about the street being reserved mostly for transit, arguing it made the area unfriendly to pedestrians.
In the recent meetings on Third Avenue, the possibility of allowing more vehicle traffic onto Third was raised, according to several people who attended. But Sagan of Piroshky Piroshky said that was the wrong focus.
“I don’t think it’s the problem,” she said, “and it might even create more danger.”