On a Thursday morning in June, an undercover Seattle police officer handed over $20 for a rock of crack cocaine in Prefontaine Park, across Third Avenue from the King County Courthouse. But instead of pocketing drugs, the officer was forced to retreat after the dealer told him he’d be shot if he didn’t leave, court records show.
A couple of days later, a plainclothes officer saw a man get shot in the chest in an alley south of Second Avenue and Pine Street, according to a Seattle police report. The shooter got away, and the victim, who was rushed to Harborview Medical Center, refused to cooperate with officers.
A few weeks after that shooting, police tracked a 29-year-old man wanted on felony warrants to a car parked on Stewart Street. As he was arrested, more than 30 grams of heroin tumbled out of his lap and officers later found a loaded .45-caliber handgun in the man’s backpack, charging papers say.
The officers involved in all three incidents were working with the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct Anti-Crime Team (ACT), which has spent much of the summer targeting street-level dealers, frequently armed, who peddle drugs in downtown neighborhoods. Drugs and guns are intertwined, so the department hopes that through strategies like its ongoing buy-bust operation, officers can disrupt open-air drug dealing and at the same time, get illegal guns off the street.
“One of the professional risks of being a drug dealer is people know you have access to drugs and money,” said ACT Sgt. Rob Brown, a 22-year police veteran. “It’s great every time you get a gun off the streets because that takes away an opportunity for somebody to get shot in a spontaneous shooting.”
Still, as police take increasing numbers of illegal guns off the streets, the number of people wounded in shootings in Seattle has also risen this year.
It’s a particularly challenging issue downtown, where office workers, commuters and tourists mix with dealers, those who are addicted and transients, increasing the possibility of a bystander witnessing violence or being injured.
“We know downtown has a high concentration of all kinds of people converging and some people are there exploiting that situation,” said Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best. “We don’t want anyone injured but certainly, we don’t want somebody innocently walking into something.”
Numbers are up
It’s difficult to determine the precise number of gun crimes that can be tied to drugs in downtown or elsewhere in the city, but Brown estimated 85% of the violent crime he sees is directly or indirectly connected to drugs.
While dealers and addicts used to either sell or use only one type of drug, Brown has seen an increase in “poly users,” and dealers have adapted, so it’s not uncommon to arrest a dealer with heroin, meth, rock cocaine and pills.
“The No. 1 drug of choice overall in Seattle is heroin — it’s the fallout from the opioid crisis,” he said. “But a heroin high can be extended by using methamphetamine or even cocaine.”
Then there are the “bunk” or fake drugs — table salt passed off as meth, for example.
“I think bunk greatly contributes to incidents of violence,” Brown said. “They’re desperate people and they’ll be looking for their money and the person who duped them. It leads to fights, knifings, gun violence — any of those things.”
For dealers with felony convictions, getting arrested with a gun carries more significant charges, so sophisticated dealers have been known to stash guns in the trunks of cars or have a girlfriend or juvenile accomplice hold onto a weapon for them, Brown said.
But officers continue to find increasing numbers of illegal guns across the city: In 2015, officers seized 928 firearms, according to Seattle police data. Police took 945 guns out of circulation in 2016; 1,280 in 2017; and 1,408 in 2018.
By the end of June, the tally so far this year was 628 firearms. The guns are all destined to be melted down when they’re no longer needed as evidence in criminal cases, Best said.
Despite the gun seizures, the number of shootings across the city has increased this year: Between January and early August, 47 people in the city were shot but survived and another 14 died from gunshot wounds — up from the 39 wounded and eight killed in shootings during the same period last year, according to police data.
South Precinct, which encompasses Rainier Valley, has historically seen a higher number of shootings than the department’s four other precincts. But police have seen an increasing number of shootings in North Precinct over the last couple of years, said Best. As of Aug. 5, police had responded to 79 shootings in South Precinct, more than double the 38 shootings investigated in North Precinct. East Precinct had 32, and the Southwest Precinct and West Precinct, which includes the downtown area, each had 24.
Close to home
Data shows that compared to other metropolitan areas, Seattle remains relatively safe, Best said. But perception is reality and it’s important that residents feel protected, she said.
Emily Rodgers knows what it’s like to have her sense of safety shattered.
Earlier this summer, she was drifting off to sleep when her dog, a German shepherd named Jaeger, started barking. She heard gunshots coming from the alley that borders her First Hill apartment building. Rodgers looked out the window and saw a police car arrive within 30 seconds, but by then, the shooters were gone. She and several other residents went up to the roof to watch as officers placed evidence markers at more than a dozen spots marking where shell casings were found.
“I was really freaked out by it. That’s really close to home,” she said.
Rodgers later learned three men had been involved in a gunfight; no one was hit, but the bullets riddled a car used by her building’s security officers.
“I feel way less safe here than I do in New York,” said Rodgers, a 27-year-old East Coast transplant who moved to Seattle in early 2018. “It’s just that it’s so shocking, anything with guns in this neighborhood.”
West Precinct Sgt. Jim Dyment, who leads a bicycle squad, recently traded his bike for a police SUV to take a reporter with him on patrol.
“It’s so much easier to get around downtown on a bike,” he said as he maneuvered through traffic to get to Pioneer Square, where a squad of bicycle officers had an assault suspect in handcuffs.
The man was accused of uttering racial slurs and bashing another man over the head with a knife hilt. The victim was taken to the hospital to get stitches.
Dyment, whose bicycle squad has participated in the ACT team’s summer buy-bust operation, said he thinks it’s having a positive impact.
“We’re getting guns off people downtown selling drugs. That shouldn’t be a surprise to people,” said Dyment. “You’re not going to see a kilo of cocaine but the volume (of street sales) is such there’s going to be violence associated with that.
“Our job is to reduce it, minimize it, mitigate it, and do what we can to make it safer,” he said. “You’re not going to eliminate crime in downtown Seattle, but we can mitigate that.”
Over the course of his shift, Dyment twice stopped his patrol vehicle in the 500 block of Third Avenue, where people gathered around the dry fountain in Prefontaine Park and outside the Morrison Hotel, which provides services to disabled, homeless adults. He made a couple of men pour beer out of cans wrapped in paper bags.
He didn’t spot any drug dealers until after 3 p.m., when he circled back and made another pass down Pine Street near Third Avenue.
“I think we have had some success out here recently, and I think it shows,” he said. “Will it stay that way? Probably not, so we have to do maintenance.”