By Paul Kiefer
Every morning at around 8 am, an informal market begins to assemble at the corner of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street. Buyers and sellers arrive from every direction by every mode of transportation: One man parks his car nearby and unloads a bag of laundry detergent and whiskey; another man steps off the streetcar at the Little Saigon stop and joins the small crowd gathering under the bus shelter.
The market has become a daily presence in Little Saigon, spilling into the courtyard of the adjacent strip mall and the underground parking structure below. Two dozen people gather on the corner, where, until this week, a King County Metro Metro bus stop stood; satellite groups of three or four people settle down near a gravel lot across the street. The products for sale vary depending on the day. On one cold February morning, a man appeared with a shopping basket full of frozen shrimp, seemingly stolen from a nearby seafood market; on another, a vendor sold bottles of hand soap.
Typically, the vendors are outnumbered by the dozens of people who come together at the corner to socialize or smoke crushed-up pills from sheets of foil. At night, some people light small bonfires to keep warm and huddle in the doorways of nearby restaurants. At any hour of the day, arguments can escalate into violence: Nearly a dozen people have been shot or stabbed at or near the intersection since the start of the pandemic, including three people in January alone.
Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.
The corner has become the epicenter of Seattle’s public safety discussions, fueled by outcry from business owners and neighborhood advocates who say that the public drug use and bouts of violence at the corner have driven away customers and could lead to the death of Little Saigon. Just before taking office, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison appeared at one nearby restaurant, Seven Stars Pepper, for a photo op with the owner, Yong Hong Wang; Davison brought up the visit, and Yong’s warning that she will need to close her restaurant if the city doesn’t intervene in the neighborhood, in her inauguration speech.
In January, SPD made 23 felony arrests and 14 misdemeanor arrests at the corner. Although the only regular law enforcement presence at the intersection is a sheriff’s deputy working for King County Metro’s transit security program, that could soon change: Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.
Crackdowns on crime “hot spots” are nothing new in Seattle, and many past attempts have produced few (or no) long-term results. Harrell’s new plan to focus the city’s police resources on the neighborhood has many observers, including neighborhood advocates and mental health service providers, wondering whether this time will be different.
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Little Saigon is no stranger to shoplifting, drug dealing and other illegal commerce, said Jim Pugel, a former Seattle police chief who first worked in the neighborhood in the 1980s. Even before it evolved into the present-day street market in Little Saigon, Pugel said that some minor illegal commerce has long been a feature of the nine square blocks between I-5 and Rainier Avenue S.
“It is an area that has always had a small market for stolen goods, illegal cigarettes and EBT [food stamp] fraud,” he said. The daily crowd of people selling shoplifted merchandise and drugs on the corner of 12th and Jackson today may be more extreme than any past iteration, he said, but the basic components are not new.
In 2011, SPD recovered more than $100,000 in stolen cell phones and other merchandise from a storefront at 12th and Jackson. Other investigations in the early 2010s led police to a restaurant selling cocaine to neighborhood drug dealers and an EBT fraud scheme involving the owners of two neighborhood grocery stores.
“Informants were telling us it was so bad you couldn’t walk down the street without getting hit up to buy drugs or electronic food-assistance benefit cards,” SPD Detective Todd Jakobsen remarked in a 2014 post on the department’s blog. “We’re going to go through 12th and Jackson and arrest all those dealers, get them off the street,” he continued. “We’re going to take that area back for the community.”
Quynh Pham, the director of the advocacy group Friends of Little Saigon and one of the central figures in current discussions of the neighborhood’s fate, says that SPD’s past crackdowns on EBT scams and drug dealing were only effective in the short term. When the COVID pandemic hit and forced many of the neighborhood’s businesses to close, she said, she watched 12th and Jackson decline more dramatically than ever before.
The city’s 2015 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates.
When SPD has ramped up its presence in Little Saigon in the past, she said, “I feel like they’ve always been reactionary and temporary. There’s never been a strategy where it’s more long term or sustained effort. And I think that’s why a lot of these issues that we’re dealing with, like food stamp fraud, keep coming back up. We’ve been a vulnerable neighborhood for a long time, and we’re still dealing with kind of the same root issues, but it’s so much more visible now.”
Harrell and SPD shouldn’t ignore the neighborhood’s history of neglect and underground commerce, said Lisa Daugaard, the co-director of the Public Defender Association (PDA). “People come to purchase where they know to come to purchase, and people sell where they know people will come to purchase,” she said. “In some locations, those patterns have proven incredibly stable over time, notwithstanding literal decades of flavor-of-the-month short-term enforcement initiatives.”
Critics of the “hot spot” approach to public safety often point to a 2015 campaign targeting the drug trade in Seattle’s downtown core known as the “9 1/2 Block Strategy,” which was spearheaded by current Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay, then an advisor to mayor Ed Murray. The campaign resulted in more than 100 arrests in its first week and a sharp decline in drug-related 911 calls from a small stretch of downtown surrounding Westlake Park, but the number of drug-, disturbance- and assault-related calls from the surrounding neighborhoods rose. The 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates. Continue reading “Advocates Question “Hot Spot” Approach to Crime at Little Saigon’s Most Troubled Intersection”