By Paul Kiefer
The Seattle Police Department moved a black van known as the “mobile precinct” to the intersection of Third Ave. and Pine St. in downtown Seattle on Thursday morning, scattering the dozens of people gathered there to buy and sell drugs and stolen merchandise.
While the move came a day after the second fatal shooting at the corner in less than a week, the department had started preparing to clear the intersection weeks earlier—the second phase in a crackdown on crime “hot spots” announced by Mayor Bruce last month. That campaign, called Operation New Day, began two weeks ago, when police cleared a similar site at the intersection of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street in the Little Saigon neighborhood; the mobile precinct van was parked at that intersection until Thursday, when it moved downtown.
On Friday morning, Harrell convened a press conference to tout the first results of Operation New Day, including dozens of arrests. Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz stood beside him, as did City Attorney Ann Davison, King County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of Staff Leesa Manion, and two federal law enforcement officials: Nick Brown, the new US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, and Frank Tarantino, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Seattle office. Leaders from Seattle’s social service providers, who Harrell has promised will eventually become partners in his push to target “hot spots,” were notably absent. No one from the Seattle City Council was at the press conference.
Service providers and non-police responders were a footnote in Friday’s press conference, which centered on the arrests and prosecutions tied to Operation New Day
The stretch of Third Ave. between Pine St. and Pike St may be the most persistently troubled block in Seattle. For at least the past three decades, mayoral administrations have attempted to stem crime on the block by increasing the number of police officers in the area. One such effort in 2015, called “the Nine and a Half Block Strategy,” succeeded in reducing the number of drug-related 911 calls in a small area surrounding Westlake Park, though calls increased dramatically in practically every neighborhood within walking distance of the park during the same period. After a shooting during rush hour in January 2020 killed one person and injured seven others, SPD scaled up its presence on the block once again, only to pull back once the COVID-19 pandemic began two months later. Each time, a market for stolen goods and narcotics reappeared on Third and Pine.
Harrell said that he planned to avoid the mistakes of earlier mayors—and to “revitalize” intersections like 12th and Jackson for the long term—in part by relying on outreach workers and service providers, who he believes will be able to direct homeless people living at or near targeted intersections to substance abuse treatment or housing. “We can’t arrest and jail our way out of this,” Diaz added. So far, no social service providers are involved in Operation New Day; the city relied on police alone to clear both 12th and Jackson and Third and Pine, though diversion groups like LEAD already do outreach near Third and Pine.
Before bringing the social service component of the operation online, Harrell said that his office is “doing an inventory of community-based organizations that are recipients of city funds to make sure they’re aligned with our vision.” He did not specify what “doing an inventory” would entail, nor would he specify which organizations they’re considering for the task—or what traits would disqualify an existing service provider from working on Operation New Day.
City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown and chairs the council’s committee on homelessness, told PubliCola on Wednesday that he sees one clear choice for an outreach provider: JustCARE, a pandemic-era cooperation between several social service providers that provides shelter and wraparound care to people who have previously interacted with the criminal justice system.
“I want to be sure we aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here,” he said, “because we have something that works and works well.” Lewis said he’s willing to be patient as Harrell considers options for incorporating service providers into Operation New Day, although he said he will be concerned if the mayor’s office hasn’t made a decision by the time JustCARE’s contract with the city expires at the end of June.
But non-police responders were largely a footnote in Friday’s press conference, which centered on the arrests and prosecutions tied to Operation New Day. Since January 21, SPD arrested 16 people for felonies—especially commercial burglary, illegal gun possession and narcotics offenses—at 12th and Jackson; nine of those people were later released by King County judges after their first court appearance. Some will face federal charges. The US Attorney’s Office has already filed charges against three people arrested in Little Saigon as part of Operation New Day and is reviewing the case of a fourth, a man initially arrested at 12th and Jackson who was released and subsequently re-arrested at Third and Pine.
Meanwhile, SPD has also conducted arrests for misdemeanor crimes at both of the targeted intersections, particularly for shoplifting. In the past month and a- alf, SPD made 25 misdemeanor theft arrests at 12th and Jackson alone.
Although Diaz and Brown cautioned against relying on arrests and prosecutions alone to fix the problems of the two targeted intersections, Harrell commented that “one of the best times to treat someone with drug and alcohol problems, unfortunately, could be when they’re arrested.” Davison echoed his thinking, arguing that “these arrests and prosecutions will help to disrupt the cycle of addiction, theft, drug sales and human suffering.”
Council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold argued that the city shouldn’t rely on arrests as the gateway for people to access treatment. “I would agree that some people are receptive to treatment when arrested,” she told PubliCola, “but research shows that some strategies for addressing substance abuse disorders are more effective than others. Jail ranks near the bottom of that list.”
Lisa Daugaard, the co-executive director of the Public Defender Association, offered a similar criticism, adding that the city already has routes to connect people committing low-level crimes to treatment without arresting them or booking them into jail.
In the short term, SPD plans to divide its attention between Little Saigon and the downtown core, using a combination of patrol officers, detectives and civilian community service officers to maintain a visible presence at 12th and Jackson while the mobile precinct is parked on Third Ave. However, Diaz acknowledged that the increased police presence at the two intersections has pushed people involved in illicit commerce to other parts of the city. “If people move to Pioneer Square, we may need to increase our presence there, too,” he said, “but there’s a limit to the number of places we can do that. We’ll run out of capacity.”
Earlier on Friday morning, a man sleeping on the sidewalk 4th Ave. and Pike St.—only a block away from SPD’s mobile precinct—was stabbed by an unknown attacker.