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Seattle’s stab alley: Two months after mass arrests in 9.5 blocks

Barriers were erected to restrict space on the sidewalk on downtown Seattle's 3rd Avenue between Pike and Pine Street. (Richard D. Oxley)

It’s not technically an alley. And perhaps stabbings don’t happen there more than elsewhere in Seattle, but that hasn’t stopped downtown professionals from calling this Third Avenue stretch “Stab Alley.”

The area, specifically, is on Third Avenue between Pike and Pine Streets.

“I’ve been harassed fairly consistently directly outside of the office building while waiting for the bus or while walking to work,” said Caitlin Carlile, an account manager in the Century Square Building. “I’ve been catcalled, and grabbed by people who tend to loiter in groups along stab alley.”

“One time, while waiting for the bus at around 9 p.m., I was surrounded by five men, one of which attempted to take my phone from my hands,” she said, noting that she has also heard about stabbings and shootings on the stretch of street. “[Someone] even vomited on our front office doors. I’ve stepped out of the office’s Third Street entrance, directly in between two people in the middle of a drug deal, who were none too pleased that I had interrupted them and let me know about it.”

With such reported experiences along the street — from drug dealing to assaults and more — it’s no surprise that the city focused considerable effort on Third Avenue on April 23 when officers swept through the area, making 95 arrests. It was the debut of the city’s 9.5 block plan, an effort to curb illegal activity and disturbances in an area they are more severely concentrated.

And it’s not just one downtown professional. Another employee in the Century Square Building recalls her office’s adoption of the nickname “Stab Alley.”

“We felt that if we walked along Third, the possibility of being stabbed was pretty great because you just didn’t feel safe,” said Amy Stoffel, a graphic designer.

“You are walking through there and you have to step over someone who is passed out from God knows what and you can’t get into your office building door because someone is sleeping in front of it,” Stoffel said. “Or mass quantities of people taking up the sidewalk … I don’t feel safe.”

Stoffel can also recall finding a syringe on the sidewalk, or an incident where coworkers were told to check their shoes in case they walked through blood splattered around the entrance to her office building.

“That was right at the steps in front of our office building,” she said. “Everyone was told that there was blood – ‘if you stepped in it, please clean your feet.'”

Related: Aurora Ave. businesses accuse Seattle leaders of ignoring area’s crime

“Stab Alley” is just one moniker given to the block. A Twitter account, for example, highlights the area by noting the incidents from the perspective of one fast food chain. The Twitter handle: @McStabbys.

“Shooting downtown Seattle backlit by our Golden Arches #mcdonaldscrime #goldenarches,” McStabbys tweeted March 19.

“Breaking news but common news from #mcstabbys,” it tweeted March 6 with a photo of a cop car flashing its lights.

Not far down the road, Second Avenue and Pine Street is also featured on Twitter: @2ndAndPine. The Second Avenue Twitter account has dubbed one particular corner “Crack Cove,” frequently documenting the cove’s drug deals and other incidents.

Seattle’s 9.5 Block Plan

Leading up to the April 23 mass arrests, undercover police made 177 purchases of meth, marijuana, crack cocaine, heroin and more, all caught it on camera.

It was the debut of the city’s 9.5 Block Plan; an effort to change the atmosphere of downtown. With it, the city is changing the downtown landscape, how police patrol the area, and how criminals are processed, among other new tactics. The goal is a long-term solution to public disturbances, an open-air drug market and other illegal activity along the Third Avenue stretch.

Related: 95 arrest in Seattle’s new fight against downtown crime

Stoffel remembers the day of the arrests.

“There were police everywhere, absolutely everywhere,” she said. “We walked out and in seconds we could count 10-15 police officers walking the streets in front of our building.”

“They were arresting people who definitely hung out along that stretch of street,” Stoffel said.

@McStabby’s also documented the day.

“What’s happening at McStabby’s. We’re #lovinit,” McStabby’s tweeted on April 23.

But the single day of arrests was only a part of a much larger plan to clean up the area.

“It’s not just a one-off operation that took months to put together. It’s about prevention and intervention,” said Officer Sean Whitcomb with the Seattle Police Department.

Among the variety of 9.5 Block approaches is changing the landscape of downtown to discourage illegal activity, such as refocusing police efforts on high crime areas, covering a range from Stewart Street to Union Street, along First and Fourth Avenues, incorporating Westlake Park.

“We had done a lot of research to map where high-priority crimes were happening and we found that this neighborhood on Third Avenue was one of the most intense spots in the city,” said Kate Joncas, Seattle’s deputy mayor for operations. “It also had a high level of assaults and other crimes happening there.”

Those arrested on April 23 were given an option to enroll in a diversion program that keeps them from prosecution. Such programs have proven to keep significant numbers of people from re-offending, Joncas said.

“[The] diversion program has been piloting for the last couple of years in Seattle,” Joncas said, noting that it diverts addicts and the mentally ill to services rather than jail.

Joncas said that the city has tried a variety of approaches to cleaning up the area over the past decades, but with varying results.

“We wanted to do something that we hope will be a permanent change there,” she said.

What is the city doing differently this time?

As part of the 9.5 Block Plan, the city shut down alleys to anyone other than residents, services, and businesses. It also changed the downtown landscape. For example, bus stops were moved to alter where people congregate.

“We saw from research that if you disrupt the physical environment, you disrupt drug markets,” Joncas said. “That is exactly what happened.”

“We moved some newspaper boxes because their level tops meant that they were kind of desks for people who were selling illegal merchandise or doing illegal business,” she said.

Stoffel noticed the changes along Third Avenue, such as a divider placed along the sidewalk, discouraged people from gathering there.

“The barrier cut the sidewalk in half,” Stoffel said. “Instead of five or six people being able to walk hand-in-hand on the sidewalk, now you can barely get two people through there.”

The city also established an office on Second and Pike where a multi-jurisdictional team including police, prosecutors and more, meets every day.

“Their job is to keep an eye on the neighborhood to make sure that the drug dealing doesn’t come back,” Joncas said.

Results

There have been no other mass arrests in the nearly two months since the 9.5 Block Plan was implemented and Joncas reports that there has been some initial success.

“We are getting some great response from neighborhood people that they are grateful and it’s clean and safe and that they feel comfortable now,” she said.

But it hasn’t been smooth all around. Of the 95 people arrested on April 23, only 11 qualified for the diversion program.

A range of incidents continue to be reported around the block since the April arrests, including: disturbances, liquor violations, shoplifting, theft, narcotics, property destruction, weapons violations/discharges, assaults and robberies.

Drug trafficking also continues. Police have reported cocaine, heroin, and meth sales since April 23. Which could be why the perception of the area hasn’t changed much in the past two months.

“I would say within three weeks, it went back to the same characters out there, but just in a smaller group,” Stoffel said.

Carlile agrees.

“I honestly haven’t noticed too much of a change, which is disappointing,” she said. “While the majority of the crowds have moved down to the new bus stops, there are still groups who hang out in areas under construction.”

@2ndandPine continues to note the activity.

“The drug deals are back, @SeattlePD. #crackcove,” tweeted May 28.

And McStabby’s continues to tweet about crimes.

“Just another drug day under the Golden Arches #goldenarches #mcstabbys #4thandpine #mcdonaldscrime,” tweeted April 30.

Joncas said she understands that perception, but asks downtown patrons to be patient.

“This is going to be a long-term process,” Joncas said. “For the people doing business there, we have to work really hard to make sure they don’t get re-established.”

Whitcomb agrees, and stressed that the 9.5 Block Plan is about a long-term goal.

“It’s not just a quick fix,” he said. “It wasn’t our intent to have a month-long operation and hold a press conference and say, ‘Mission accomplished.'”

Whitcomb pointed to Westlake as an example — an area with a rough reputation — but over a long period, was able to make considerable improvements.

“When people are aware that a lot of police activity took place and they see crime take place afterwords, there will be lingering doubt, but it’s a part of the natural process and we are committed to an overall improvement and continual police presence over time,” he said.

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