A four-month operation by the Seattle Police Department’s Major Crimes Taskforce (MCTF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has led authorities to 186 suspected drug dealers and thieves, who turned Seattle’s downtown core into an open-air drug market and street corner swap meet. As of Thursday morning, police have arrested 95 suspects, and local officials are now working to get some of those dealers off the streets by connecting them with a pioneering and promising diversion program, instead of sending them to prison.
Since January, MCTF detectives and West Precinct officers have been working undercover as part of Operation Crosstown Traffic, a partnership with the FBI, US Attorney’s Office, King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and City Attorney’s Office, aimed at identifying criminals involved in a thriving underground economy around 3rd Avenue and Pine Street. Over the last year, police have received 10,000 calls of service in the area surrounding the 1500 block of Pine Street, including frequent reports of drug dealing and property crimes, as well as violent brawls, shootings, and stabbings.
“Seattle residents and visitors should not be forced to navigate a dangerous open-air drug market between the downtown retail core and Pike Place Market,” said Mayor Murray. “Our comprehensive nine-and-a-half block strategy will help break the cycle of addiction by expanding LEAD diversions, while removing violent repeat offenders from our streets. My thanks to the men and women of Seattle Police Department, as well as our federal and local law enforcement partners, for their success in one of the largest criminal investigations in Seattle history.”
During Operation Crosstown Traffic, police approached 186 street dealers in the area and made 177 purchases of heroin, meth, marijuana, crack cocaine and other drugs, all caught on hidden cameras.
Detectives also got a good look at the area’s underground economy in action, as shoplifters sold armloads of stolen goods—like Seahawks jerseys, sunglasses and even bottles of shampoo—to crowds at bus stops and on street corners. Shoplifters took the cash from those sales, detectives say, and went straight to area drugs dealers, before heading to nearby alleyways to shoot up or smoke narcotics.
Police discovered many of the suspects involved in crime around Pine Street had multiple prior convictions for auto theft, burglary, drug crimes, robbery and assault. Police had previously contacted several of the suspects more than 100 times.
“The successful operations this week underscore the value of collaborative enforcement efforts with our Federal and regional partners,” said Chief Kathleen O’Toole. “We will continue our collective efforts to promote safe and healthy neighborhoods, Downtown and throughout the City. “
Because so many of the 186 suspects identified in Crosstown Traffic have had previous brushes with the law, Police and prosecutors are working to refer an unprecedented number of them to the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program (LEAD), providing them with opportunities for housing, treatment or other needed services, instead of slapping them with felony charges. A recent University of Washington study of the LEAD program showed participants who entered into diversion were nearly 60-percent less likely to commit new crimes.
Police are hoping to offer diversion services to a portion of the 186 individuals identified during Crosstown Traffic, who have not previously been involved in violent crimes. 37 suspects are facing federal charges, and are not eligible for LEAD.
In addition to providing an alternative to jail for Pine Street’s prolific dealers, the city is partnering with the downtown business community, Metropolitan Improvement District, service agencies, and other city and county departments on a “9 ½ Block Initiative,” designed to refocus public safety efforts in Seattle’s core.
“This operation is about much more than locking up offenders. It is about taking back a key part of our city by addressing the range of factors that allowed it to become a one-stop shop for drugs,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes. “We are pleased to be working closely with the City and our federal and local law enforcement partners who all bring important tools to bear to this problem. In our case, we will be asking judges to ban these offenders from coming back to the Pike/Pine area and will hold those who do to account, so that we can return the area to everyone who lives, works and visits our great city.”
Under the City of Seattle’s 9 ½ Blocks Initiative, SPD will focus additional foot and bike patrols in the area from 1st Avenue and Westlake Park, between Stewart and Union Streets. This section of the downtown core will also remain an area of focus for SPD’s Neighborhood Response Team.
“Downtown Seattle is a regional jewel that belongs to all of us. Drug dealing, and the misery, violence and crime that follows in its wake, has no place in our downtown,” said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg.”We will shut it down with every tool we have.”
“Legalizing and regulating marijuana and using harm reduction tools to address hard drug addiction does not mean standing by as the heart of our downtown continues for years to house a large-scale, outdoor market for illegal drug sales,” said City Attorney Pete Holmes. “Smarter public policies on drugs never meant that we have to accept open-air drug markets. The approach we’re taking today is an effort to strike the balance necessary to enforce the law and clean up downtown without falling back into the wasteful and counterproductive cycle of the War on Drugs.”
The city is also working with local King County Metro Transit to relocate several bus stops in the area, which have served as offices for some dealers. Officials are also working to relocate garbage cans, newspaper stands and benches in the area, and close several alleyways associated with repeat criminal activity.