Two weeks have passed since the Seattle Police Department announced what it must have hoped would be blockbuster news: a buy/bust operation executed with federal officials that tallied 403 drug arrests. Officers and agents for the Drug Enforcement Agency targeted the "open-air drug market," making undercover buys on sidewalks and alleys, then arresting the dealers. The big numbers looked impressive.
At the press conference, Special Agent in Charge Rodney Benson declared that this team had never made so many arrests. Not in New Orleans. Not in East St. Louis or East Cleveland. Not even in metropolitan Los Angeles.
In most cities, this news might earn applause. In Seattle the audience is harder to please.
Take Andrew Miller, chair of the Miller Park Neighborhood Association, who has his own method for measuring drug traffic: He walks from his Central District home down East Madison toward the Safeway. One early evening in mid-April—just when the sweeps that had targeted his neighborhood were nearing their conclusion—Miller was offered drugs by six people within the space of a block. Similar firsthand reports come from other "hot spots" targeted through buy/bust methods, such as University Avenue, Broadway, and Pioneer Square.
The drug-sweep announcement has been greeted with even more hostility in academic circles. "It's puzzling how this is being touted as this breakthrough that's going to change things," says Lisa Daugaard, a King County public defender and part of the Defender Association, which objects to the buy/bust method of drug enforcement.
Daugaard attended the May 18 press conference and could barely contain her frustration. She says the most recent methods of drug enforcement run counter to empirical evidence. "This is not a tactic that has—or can—work." Daugaard points to the disproportionate share of arrested suspects who are black and says it's a result of police hitting neighborhoods populated by black drug dealers harder than the ones ruled by white drug dealers.
"That's nonsense," responds Captain Steven Brown, commander of the department's narcotics section. "We're going where the crime is."
In presentations at community meetings, Brown explained how the department's new "Narcstat" approach tracks drug activity through citizen complaints and devotes more resources to those spots.
Though Brown says that the 403 arrests represent major progress against the Seattle drug trade, he concedes that "a high level of frustration" continues to exist among neighborhood folks.
No one, it seems, is happy with the drug-enforcement status quo. City Council President Nick Licata is pushing a program that would identify potential drug offenders in locations such as the Rainier Valley and connect them with social services before they become statistics in the criminal justice system. This treatment is expensive, but so is incarceration.
Early intervention and diversion are also themes in the report issued last May by the King County Bar Association, which based its conclusions on input from sources all along the criminal justice spectrum: police, Department of Corrections officials, social workers, and academics. The report incorporated the early effects of I-75, which made marijuana a low priority for law enforcement. The change did not lead to widespread public marijuana use. Perhaps less Draconian enforcement of other drug laws would have a similarly mild effect, while at the same time sparing young people from felony records that could disrupt their futures and strain the prison system. I-75, the report says, "provides an example of reducing harms, or costs, associated with the use of recreational drugs."
King County's Drug Diversion Court also minimizes that damage. It allows low-level offenders to choose treatment, and the results have been positive. Capt. Brown says roughly a quarter of those arrested in his recent sweep will go through drug court. But Brown says that it's not a choice between either treating drug dealers and offenders or arresting them. He says the city needs to do both.
On the other hand, for all its drug activity, Seattle still rates low on violent crime. Neighbors who attend community meetings speak of drugs mostly as a nuisance. That would seem to suggest there's less political pressure for policymakers to go after big, fast (and, according to critics, misleading) results like the ones recently announced.