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After shooting, Seattle police under renewed pressure to stop rising gun violence, gang activity

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Daniel Beekman
Seattle Times

SEATTLE — In one sense, the shooting Wednesday in downtown Seattle that killed a woman and injured seven other people was utterly shocking. The gunfire erupted suddenly as crowds of evening commuters splashed across one of the city’s busiest intersections.

Tens of thousands of people travel past Third Avenue and Pine Street every day without incident, and Seattle is one of the country’s safest major cities, Mayor Jenny Durkan noted Thursday, expressing condolences to the victims and their families, as well as gratitude to the first responders and bystanders who helped.

“Most of us in this city have walked that block at about that time of day. I’ve done it hundreds of times in my life,” the mayor said at a news conference. “No one in our city or country should step out of a coffee shop or get on a bus with fear of violence.”

But in another sense, Wednesday’s tragedy was sadly less surprising. Third has long been beset by low-level crime and intermittent violence, with repeated attempts to address those problems never yielding permanent changes.

The shooting that started after a dispute outside a McDonald’s was the third in a little over 24 hours downtown, and two of three suspects in the incident were still at large as of Thursday evening.

The bullets struck indiscriminately, hitting not only a suspect who was later arrested at Harborview Medical Center but also a 9-year-old boy, two Amazon employees and two formerly homeless women, one of whom died, according to Plymouth Housing, which operates the building where she lived. Three people, including the child, remained hospitalized Thursday, though officials said their conditions were improving.

“Will you be the mayor who finally fixes Third and Pine?” a reporter at Thursday’s news conference asked Durkan, who said she would try to clean up the area while also tackling gun violence in other neighborhoods and what she described as a regionwide increase in gang activity.

“I will be the mayor that is going to try every single day to fix Third and Pine, and Fourth and Pine, and Fifth and Pine, and the courthouse, and Rainier Valley, and Lake City Way,” she said, mentioning other locations where violent crimes have occurred and in some cases, where gunshots are more common than in downtown.

“We have to make sure that people in this city not only are safe but feel safe,” she said.

Violent crime declined in Seattle last year, with fewer murders, aggravated assaults and robberies, though reports of shootings and gunfire were up slightly.

The Seattle Police Department has hardly been ignoring Third Avenue, said Durkan, who was in Washington, D.C., for a mayors conference at the time of the shooting but returned early Thursday. The department has carried out emphasis patrols on Third “off and on” over the past year, sending extra officers to the area, Police Chief Carmen Best said Thursday.

The department was able to respond to Wednesday’s scene “within seconds” because undercover officers were working to arrest drug dealers nearby, Best said. Two hours before the Third and Pine shooting Wednesday, police had shot a man during a narcotics operation in Belltown.

But Seattle leaders, who have struggled recently to recruit and retain police officers and who are trying to complete court-mandated police reforms, will now come under additional pressure to reassure residents and workers downtown.

Though downtown’s population has swelled in recent years, 911 calls by the public there, including calls about assaults, have grown at a greater rate.

Durkan and Best sketched out a plan Thursday, vowing to conduct more emphasis patrols, put a mobile precinct near Westlake Park, talk to businesses about streetscape changes and partner with federal prosecutors to keep shooters behind bars.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg wasn’t at Thursday’s news conference to answer questions about how his office handled previous cases involving the suspects in Wednesday evening’s shooting, who had been arrested numerous times. In a statement, his office said they would work “as long as it takes to ensure that those responsible for this violence are in custody.”

Durkan and Best also said they would try to remove more guns from the streets and pledged support for programs that steer young people from violence.

“If this had been a fistfight, eight people would not have ended up at the hospital,” Durkan said. “There are too many guns in our country.”

Lasting success may depend on those and other alternative approaches, because periodic police initiatives along Third have achieved mixed, short-term success.

“It’s one of the hardest things to manage,” said Norm Rice, who served as mayor from 1990 to 1997. He noted crackdowns have in the past led to complaints about biased policing.

“I don’t envy this mayor,” he said.

Perhaps the most ambitious push to combat open-air drug dealing and related crime in Seattle’s downtown core occurred in April 2015, under then-Mayor Ed Murray.

Multiple agencies joined in a multipronged initiative dubbed the “9 ½ Block Strategy,” which targeted territory between First and Fourth avenues and Union and Stewart streets and began with dozens of almost-simultaneous arrests.

For months, police officers, prosecutors and social-service providers shared space in a storefront on Second Avenue and sought to identify the area’s most dangerous characters. Bus stops were moved to disrupt drug trafficking, newspaper boxes that had been used like liquor bars were hauled away and alleyways were closed down.

Participants included the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which was brought in to connect low-level offenders with treatment and housing.

At the time, the 9 1/2 Block Strategy drew praise from Downtown Seattle Association president Jon Scholes, who called it “just the type of effort we’ve been advocating,” and a year later, Murray said the push had cut downtown crime by 30%. Westlake Park was revitalized with street furniture, food trucks and games.

But LEAD made less headway, partly because many of the people arrested had violent criminal records that made them ineligible for the program. Calls to the police about narcotics and other issues spiked in the neighborhoods surrounding the target territory, raising questions about some crime merely being displaced. At some point, the storefront command center closed and the operation concluded.

The changes at Westlake Park have stuck since then, but violent crime has returned to the area in sporadic bursts, like gunfire that injured five people in 2016 and a shooting at the Westlake light-rail station in September that left one man dead, two other people wounded and led to an arrest.

Scholes now says a more aggressive approach is needed.

“What we’ve all known way too long is that the heart of our city is a haven for criminals,” he said, arguing Seattle should grow its police force, redeploy some officers from special units to patrol duties and dedicate more resources to apprehending people with open warrants, such as the two suspects still at large.

“We need more dedicated prosecutors and more dedicated resources to deal with the people that we know are cycling through the criminal justice system,” he said. “They’re thumbing their nose at the system and the community.”

Mike McGinn, who served as Seattle mayor from 2010 to 2013, warned against a heavy-handed approach, saying City Hall must invest more money upstream.

“We’ve tried more arrests. That doesn’t actually work … These geographic hot spots are very durable over time,” said McGinn. He suggested youth and re-entry programs are a better bet, while agreeing that redeploying officers patrols can help deter crime.

Durkan and Best said Thursday the police department is agile enough to move resources around the city as trends change and threats emerge.

“I do not think Seattle is in crisis,” the mayor said. “I think Seattle is a big city that has big city challenges.”