Crime In Our Streets

Third Avenue in downtown Seattle, especially in the blocks around Pike Pine streets, is so dangerous that ordinary office workers are anxious for their safety when they go out to lunch. In winter, when dark settles at 4:30, female office workers go in twos to their cars or buses. There have been a number of murders and many muggings, some in broad daylight in a small area that is supposed to include some of the city’s prime real estate.

Benaroya Hall, home to the Seattle Symphony, is one block from Third and Pike. The Pike Place Market—the city’s most famous tourist draw—is two blocks away. Macy’s is right on the corner of Third and Pine.

Downtown Seattle was once famously safe. Now, office workers and condo dwellers share stories of new crime incidents literally daily. A colleague reports that a sex act was performed behind a truck next to her bus stop at 8:15 this morning and, a few steps later on her walk to work, a vagrant physically threatened a stranger.

Another co-worker called 911 two days ago when a dangerous looking man appeared out of nowhere, his arm cocked to hit him. I personally have reported crack deals to the 911 operators (and crack smoking behind our building in “Crack Alley”, as it is locally known), and one day witnessed a man suddenly knock another man down with a hard slug in the face. Other witnessed gang beatings and worse.

Periodically, police swoop in and rustle about, then go away. The crack dealers, pimps, and swaggering youth reassert themselves almost at once.

Mentally ill people get into pedestrians’ faces, gang members shout at each other from corner to corner, aggressive panhandlers accost tourists on their way from the big hotels and the Convention Center to Pike Place Market.

I have been in Baghdad and Beirut. In Jerusalem there are armed guards at every restaurant and in some other capitals around the world there seems to be a policeman or soldier on every corner. I have felt safer in some of those places than in my immediate office neighborhood.

Co-workers who witnessed a shooting in front of Macy’s two days ago said that a riot nearly erupted as gang members swarmed into the Third and Pine intersection to protest police arrest of four suspects. Many associates fear that another event could result in a riot for real. Seattle has not had one of those since the WTO protest demonstrations of 2000—a story that made international news.

Why has this situation developed? One contributing cause is found in the subsidized services in the area that are said to attract the underworld.

Another reason may be that the city seems to fasten huge media attention on supposed cases of police insensitivity, while explaining away crime.

Ordinary police officers have been quoted in the papers saying that they may get in trouble if they arrest someone, but will suffer no consequences if they fail to act at all. It takes community support to cause a man or woman to face physical danger, and the Seattle police often don’t feel that support.

But Seattle also has a problem because any policing on Third Avenue is intermittent as well as irresolute. The excuse is made that we have a big city and the police can’t be spared to cover just one area heavily.

Really? Is there some other area of high crime that is higher priority than this? Sure, Seattle may need more police officers, but it has 1280 now.

How many does it take to secure a three block area? Third Avenue’s problems are notorious all over the city.

Another excuse offered is that if the Pike/Pine corridor on Third Avenue is policed heavily, the thugs and dealers will just move elsewhere.

Well, they won’t move elsewhere if they are arrested and sent to prison where they belong.

Right now, Walgreens Drugs Store at Third and Pike has a policy (according to a store worker with whom I spoke) that shoplifters will not be prosecuted. That’s right. Police will not even be called. The criminal simply is to be surrounded by a store guard and other staff. The goods he or she has stolen are to taken away and the miscreant warned not to return.

Why this policy? “Because it doesn’t do any good to call the police,” I was told. The police will be slow to arrive and the resulting paperwork and court time are not worth the trouble and cost to the corporation.

That is how tolerance in a city descends slowly into chaos. At some point an incident will occur that is so appalling that public outrage finally will arise. Then I suppose the authorities will find that they can spare the patrolmen they need to cover Third Avenue, after all.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.