When the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and Mayor Ed Murray’s office rolled out the 9 1/2 Block Strategy to clean up crime in a chunk of downtown last April, the city cheered. After all, for years Seattle’s unsavory elements had turned those areas between Westlake Park and Pike Place Market and between Union and Stewart streets into what looked, to tourists, residents and nearby business owners, like a meeting place for petty criminals and drug traffickers. “We had drug dealers sort of owning the real estate in that part of downtown for a while,” says Jon Scholes, CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.
The problems in the area had existed for decades, says Scott Lindsay, the mayor’s special assistant on police reform and public safety, and they were centered on a single block: Third Avenue between Pike and Pine streets. Lindsay likened that block to a “shopping mall of crime,” with drug deals happening on one side of the street and people peddling stolen goods on the other. This critical mass of bad apples spilled over onto nearby blocks and spun off a host of antisocial behaviors, including shoplifting, robberies, assaults and more. The entire nine-and-a-half-block area generated about 10,000 calls for service in 2014, the highest concentration of crimes and calls, per square foot, anywhere in the city, he says.
The SPD’s program started with a big sweep over a few days, resulting in a massive number of arrests. When the dust settled, 180 people were charged with crimes; 37 of these were federal offenses. The vast majority of those arrested were charged with drug offenses and most of the others, with dealing in stolen goods, according to Lindsay.
The SPD shifted some officers to focus on those nine and a half blocks, and set up a small satellite office. Along with that, the department disrupted the physical space by working with Metro to move bus stops, since dealers would sometimes hide in plain sight, blending in with the crowd waiting for a bus. They narrowed the sidewalk along that stretch of road, giving dealers less space to ply their trade. They also closed alleys.
For the first few months the program was in place, it seemed to be working. Calls for “disturbances,” a sort of catchall term for times when police have to quiet things down, dropped sharply, from 199 in March to 134 in June, says Lindsay. The numbers stayed lower throughout the summer (146 in July, 138 in August). Robberies were also down, from 18 in March to six in June. The drop, Lindsay says, was doubly impressive, since there’s typically an uptick in activity during the summer months.
Once the number of incidents on those blocks decreased, officials began rolling back some of the changes they’d put into place. The barricades narrowing the sidewalk were removed in late August, and, according to the police, the number of disturbances has not increased. “The barricades were never going to be a permanent solution,” Lindsay says. “That’s not the way you run your city.” In late September, the bus stops were returned to their normal locations.
Lindsay says the city’s plan was to roll back some of the changes, one at a time, and see if crime levels returned. Other facets of the program, such as the additional officers and alley closures will remain in place for now, Lindsay says.
Seattle police did not expect to be able to completely eliminate the presence of drug dealers in the area, at least not quickly. But the main goal, breaking up this shopping mall effect, has worked,Lindsay says. “So far, removing those changes has not meant a return of the drug market in any sort of concentrated manner.”
And while city officials acknowledge there is much more cleanup work to do on those blocks, people who work in the area feel the situation is improving.
“We have seen a significant change [on these blocks],” says Nicki Kerbs, chief operating officer of Cupcake Royale, which has a shop in the area.
In years past, it was common to see people using drugs in the alleyway behind the store at First Avenue and Pine Street and creating disturbances, she says. Those kinds of problems, Kerbs notes, are less frequent now.
Other business owners report similar improvements, says Scholes of the Downtown Seattle Association. He walks through the area frequently, and says he’s seen a decline in criminal activity.
Police report a drop in the number of times officers have been dispatched to streets, like Third Avenue (pictured), in the nine-and-a-half-block area
Captain Chris Fowler of the Seattle Police Department says that along with the new cleanup effort came new training for police officers, with the hope that officers assigned to the area will be able to prevent problems before they start.
One way officers do this is by interacting—in an informal way—with potential troublemakers over problems (such as obstructing the sidewalk) that don’t necessarily lead to arrests. These kinds of conversations, along with the overall SPD strategy, have led to a drop in the number of times officers were dispatched to the area, from 365 to 293, Fowler says.
Everyone agrees there is more work to do. In particular, Scholes says, the business community would like to see added foot and bike police in the area, since these officers can engage more easily with people on the streets.
Maintaining the program for the long term is key, says Jonathan Wender, Ph.D., a criminologist and 20-year police veteran who teaches at the University of Washington. Strategies like the SPD’s 9 1/2 Block must be measured in years, not months, he says. “Properly crafted, that kind of intensive, hot-spot policing can be effective.”
Wender notes that this sort of effort rarely leads to seeing crime move to a new spot. While it might seem logical that criminals would pick up shop and move their activities a few blocks away, that phenomenon, called “displacement,” is unusual. “Your average offender is lazy. These are not criminal masterminds,” he says. “Displacement is relatively low.”
Lindsay says this has been borne out here. “Seattle Police have been looking for displacement effects and have not seen a significant uptick in crime at nearby locations,” he says.
That’s good news for downtown Seattle, coupled with what looks, so far, like positive outcomes for the SPD’s 9 1/2 Block Strategy. “We’ve gone from truly a crisis situation to a more typical public safety issue in a big city downtown,” says Lindsay.