By Paul Kiefer
A month has passed since the Seattle Police Department moved its mobile precinct to the intersection of Third Ave. and Pine St. in downtown Seattle, scattering an open-air market for drugs and stolen merchandise that had recently been the scene of two murders.
SPD has maintained a presence at the intersection since then as part of a push to crack down on crime downtown called Operation New Day, mostly making arrests for shoplifting and other misdemeanor crimes. Unlike a similar crackdown in the Little Saigon neighborhood in February, there have been few felony arrests in the long-troubled area. Meanwhile, the social services that Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said would follow the sweep at Third and Pine are still on hold.
Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell says that the relative scarcity of felony arrests doesn’t tell the full story. “Felonies take a while—you’ve got to build those cases,” she said. Unlike at 12th Ave. and S. Jackson St. in Little Saigon, where federal law enforcement began investigating a similar illicit market and a pattern of EBT fraud long before SPD cleared the intersection, Harrell said the sweep of Third and Pine was a direct response to the shootings on February 27 and March 2 that killed 52-year-old Reno Maiava and 15-year-old Michael Del Bianco, respectively. SPD later arrested suspects in both shootings, though neither arrest took place on Third; officers tracked Maiava’s killer to a Tukwila motel, while Del Bianco’s killer turned himself in at SPD’s West Precinct.
Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell disputes that the sweeps in the downtown core fueled an increase in violence elsewhere. “People’s perceptions and urban myths are not always fact,” she said.
Harrell added that while SPD is still working with federal partners to make drug arrests in the area, the investigations require patience. “We’re not trying to get the low-level dealers,” she said. “We’re trying to get the folks who are a little further up the food chain, and you can’t put that on a calendar.”
Judges have already released many of the people arrested at both Third and Pine and 12th and Jackson; one man released by a King County Superior Court judge after his arrest in Little Saigon reappeared along Third, where SPD officers arrested him again for drug possession and carrying a gun illegally. According to Harrell, the repeat arrests have frustrated some prosecutors. “What I’m hearing from prosecutors is that they’re making their best cases and their strongest recommendations” to judges, she said, “and sometimes they’re feeling unheard.”
According to US Attorney Nick Brown, finding a “high-level” drug dealer at an intersection like Third and Pine—or at any of the encampments in greater downtown that SPD has swept in the past two months—is unlikely. Most of the dealers whose crimes could rise to the federal level, he says, “are, in fact, not Washingtonians. … Most of the people we identify as significant in those cases are not even in Seattle; many are in Mexico or California. Those that are here only come for a short period of time.” Brown’s office has the discretion to decide which cases rise to the federal level; the King County Prosecutor’s Office handles the vast majority of felony cases. So far, Brown’s office has taken four cases from the crackdowns in Little Saigon and along Third Ave.
In the view of some skeptics of the operation, most of the behavior drawing negative attention at Third and Pine doesn’t rise to the felony level. “Most of what people complain about aren’t felonies,” said Kevin Toth, a social worker with the King County Department of Public Defense. “Drug dealing, sure. Robberies, shootings, also, yes. But most of the atmosphere down there is the result of lawful behaviors or misdemeanors at worst.”
Meanwhile, the operation at Third and Pine has re-opened the direct line between police officers and the Public Defender Association-run program LEAD, the city’s primary diversion option for people who commit crimes related to behavioral health issues or extreme poverty. LEAD’s early model relied on referrals from arresting officers—so-called “arrest diversions”—but in the past two years, the program shifted focus, relying instead on community groups, business organizations, outreach workers and prosecutors to refer clients for diversion. Community referrals don’t create an arrest record—one reason the program began shifting away from arrest diversions to begin with.
However, according to LEAD project director Tara Moss, that trend is reversing. “We’re now seeing the current mayor’s office and SPD leadership break the logjam and start sending LEAD referrals again” after a two-year pause on arrest referrals, she said. In 2021, LEAD received one arrest diversions; this year, the program has received eight arrest diversions. Moss also noted that while the program currently has some “capacity issues” as a result of a new wave of referrals, she anticipates that LEAD will be able to take on more clients later this year.
Since officers haven’t done arrest diversions in years, Harrell said, SPD is currently retraining officers on how to engage with LEAD and introducing officers hired in the past two years to the program for the first time.
SPD did not arrest everyone at the open-air market on Third and Pine; some scattered to nearby corners, to Pioneer Square, or to other parts of the city. V, an organizer with the drug user solidarity group DUST, says that dispersing people—many of them unhoused—across the city by sweeping corners like Third and Pine can create tension in the places where those people land. “[It] puts a strain on the homeless people in each neighborhood because the service providers there have limited capacity,” they said. Newcomers can trigger conflicts, V added, that can escalate into violence.
The weeks following SPD’s clearance of Third and Pine have not been peaceful. Eighteen people were shot or stabbed in the past month or so, most of them in or near encampments; in response to some of those shootings, the city cleared encampments in Chinatown, Little Saigon, and the University District. But Harrell disputes that the sweeps in the downtown core fueled an increase in violence elsewhere. “People’s perceptions and urban myths are not always fact,” she said. In Ballard, for instance—the site of two shootings, one of them fatal, in the past month—the deputy mayor said that a pattern of gun violence long predates the crackdowns in downtown Seattle.
Nevertheless, people have moved from the encampments and corners swept by SPD, and many of the people detained during those sweeps have left jail with no place to go.
“Operation New Day is positioned to damage lives and undermine community safety by prosecuting and incarcerating members of our community who need housing and other community-based services and support.”—King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal
In US Attorney Brown’s view, while the city’s efforts to clear Third and Pine have made the intersection feel safer, the city needs to do more to make the strategy sustainable. “There’s plenty of evidence that suggest that ‘hot spot’ initiatives work and don’t just move crime, but also reduce crime,” he said. “What makes that sustainable are all the things outside of law enforcement and prosecutors’ purview, and especially social services and housing,” as well as health care.
But not everyone agrees that the hot spot approach—and Operation New Day itself—has actually improved public safety. “Operation New Day is positioned to damage lives and undermine community safety by prosecuting and incarcerating members of our community who need housing and other community-based services and support,” said Anita Khandelwal, the director of King County’s Department of Public Defense. “For a new day to occur in in Seattle, we need to invest in affordable housing and mental and behavioral health support and divest from the expensive and racially disproportionate criminal legal system.”
So far, the city hasn’t brought new social services online to support SPD’s operations in greater downtown. City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, the chair of the council’s housing and homelessness committee, has argued repeatedly that one of city’s best options for people involved in the criminal-justice system is the housing and case management program JustCARE. “I wish we could all get together and be like, “Okay, look, we all agree this is a good idea—how can we keep it so it keeps going and build it to be permanent?'” he said.
Harrell said her office wants to take time to assess other options. “If JustCARE is doing the best job, if it’s the best use of our resources, then we have to figure out what organizations may not be able to use resources as well,” the deputy mayor said. “But there are other organizations that do the same body of work. We can’t just listen to success stories from JustCARE… Maybe other organizations are just not as successful at promoting what they do.”
Another option on the table to sustain SPD’s efforts downtown, Harrell said, could be opening smaller satellite police precincts—possibly in vacant storefronts. “As we increase in density, it might not make sense to have precincts covering these massive geographic areas,” she said. “It could make more sense to have closer resources for communities.” If SPD moves forward with the satellite precinct concept, she added, both the downtown core and the International District are on the short list for new locations.