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Seattle Police Attempt To Drive Drug Dealers Out Of Downtown

A police van at Third Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
A police van at Third Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle.

There’s an open air drug market between Westlake Center and the Pike Place Market. People who live and work downtown are getting tired of dealing with that. So are business owners.

"You’re facing shoplifting multiple times a day, you’re seeing people overdose in your bathroom, you’re cleaning up heroin needles," the Downtown Seattle Association’s Jon Scholes said.

Now the city of Seattle is trying to do something about it.

There have been 95 arrests over the last few days – without a single incident of use of force, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole says.

"The Seattle police force is back in business,” O’Toole said. “But we’re doing it right this time."

At Third Avenue and Pine Street, near the McDonald’s, a police van cruises by. That’s nothing new. But you should have been there Wednesday ... Darius Jenkins saw what happened.

"I was waiting for the bus on my way to work,” Jenkins said. “They took something like six people, had them handcuffed, put them in a paddy wagon and took them to jail."

This isn’t your normal police activity. This is a surge aimed at drug dealers, rather than users.

The FBI, the county and the city have been working together for months, building cases against people they say are known drug dealers and violent offenders.

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Real Change vendor Lisa Sawyer stands on a corner near Westlake Park. She says she’s seen drug dealers leaving the downtown core.

"They’re always at Westlake Park and now they’re being pushed in different directions,” she said. “They’re pushing them up to University Street, they’re pushing them up to Stewart Street. And I’ve been talking to other vendors and they see the same thing."

O’Toole says police will be watching to make sure crime doesn’t just migrate to another neighborhood.

This isn’t the war on drugs, aiming to lock dealers up for life. Instead, they’re being made really uncomfortable. The city is closing off the alleys where they hide. It’s removing the newspaper boxes where they stash their stuff.

When dealers are arrested, some will be banned from the downtown core. Others will be rehabilitated, through social service programs. Senior citizen Willie Davis says that’s a fine approach.

"I guess it’s because I used to be a pretty bad guy myself," he said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Willie Davis used to sell drugs downtown. Now, he's on the other side of the fence: a senior citizen who lives downtown and cares about public safety.", "fid": "117160", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201504/willie_davis.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

Davis said he used to sell dope downtown. He cleaned his life up 15 years ago because he got tired of going to jail and paying fines.

He said the police surge is a good thing. But it’s important to remember that all those being arrested – they’re people too. And people change when they’re ready to change.

“Ain’t nothing gonna happen positive for you or nobody else unless a person wants to make it happen,” Davis said. “In your heart, you gotta be tired, just like a recovering addict or something. You’ve got to want to get clean, you’ve got to want to make it happen."

Correction 4/24/15, 10 a.m.: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jon Scholes’ name.