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Dozens Arrested, Downtown 'Open-Air Drug Market' Dismantled

Kyle Stokes
A King County Metro Transit bus approaches the intersection of Third Avenue & Pine Streets, an area where local and federal law enforcement recently announced more than 90 arrests.

Local and federal law enforcement officers in Seattle announced Thursday the arrests of more than 90 suspects in a targeted effort to end street-corner drug deals and related violence in the downtown corridor around Third Avenue & Pine Street.

Seattle Police also announced stepped-up enforcement and outreach efforts in the nine-and-a-half blocks flanking Third & Pine. The swath is marked by the highest concentration of criminal activity in the city, including what Mayor Ed Murray called an "open-air drug market" not far from the city's world-class farmer's market.

Skirmish On Drugs 

But city leaders also said they didn't intend the effort to signal the re-ignition of a local "war on drugs."

Though the effort led to arrest warrants for more than 180 suspects, just 37 of them face federal drug or weapon charges. Many of the rest are eligible for drug court programs or a police-supervised diversion program that connects them with housing and treatment services.

"We can achieve significant public safety gains city-wide by applying focused efforts in small hotspots," Murray said at a press conference.

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, at right, holds a press conference with, from left, U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, the FBI’s Frank Montoya and the city's chief criminal prosecutor, Craig Sims.

Undercover law enforcement officers were able to complete more than 170 purchases of heroin, methamphetamine, crack cocaine, marijuana and other drugs, according to a joint statement from the FBI and Seattle Police. Many of the suspects have prior criminal records and histories with police.

A Little Goes A Long Way

U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes compared the neighborhood-level effort to those yielding massive drug busts in White Center in 2011 and in Tukwila in 2013.

"Although we know we are not going to arrest our way out of the drug addiction problem, this effort demonstrates that focused enforcement matters," said Acting U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes.

City and police officials are also relocating several King County Metro Transit bus stops, close off alleyways and move newspaper stands, benches and trash cans in hopes of clearing criminal activity out of the area.

Also key to that goal: state and federal prosecutors said they will ask judges to bar suspects from returning to the nine-and-a-half-block area around Third & Pine.

City attorney Pete Holmes noted "nearly 40" of the suspects had sold marijuana in the area.

"This is illegal," Holmes said in a statement, "and it's not what I-502 promised" when it legalized the sale of recreational marijuana from licensed retailers — but not on street corners.

Murray, Hayes, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole, FBI Special Agent In Charge Frank Montoya and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg attended a joint press conference to announce the arrests Thursday. The city's chief criminal prosector, Craig Sims, stood in for Holmes, whom he said was mourning a death in the family.

"I've supported ending the War on Drugs for my entire public service career," Holmes wrote in his statement, "and I'm pleased to stand with the Mayor, Police Chief, U.S. Attorney, FBI and County Prosecutor in furtherance of that goal."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.