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South Seattle Drug Market Initiative unveiled in Columbia City

On February 9th, representatives from the Seattle Police Department, the King County Prosecutor’s Office, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office were on hand in Columbia City to explain the South Seattle Drug Market Iniative (DMI).

Drug dealing generates or contributes to a wide range of social disorder and drug-related crime in the surrounding community that can have a marked effect on the local residents’ quality of life.  South Seattle residents and businesses in Columbia City felt a diminished sense of public safety as drug-related activity became more blatant. They watched as their communal areas such as parks and city streets were often taken over by drug sellers and their customers, rendering them unusable to the local community. 

As a result, the South Seattle Community, Law Enforcement and Prosecution partnerships were developed out of a need to address this growing problem. Over the course of several months the groups met to discuss enforcement activity, especially a crackdown or sweep, which was likely to result in an increased arrest rate. For the South Seattle community it wasn’t enough to simply make arrest. Arrest is only a deterrent if the end result is lengthy sentencing and it has been suggested that although large enforcement operations are intended to send the message that dealing will be dealt with harshly, the reality is that in many cases, those apprehended will serve little or no time in jail.

This community was looking for a more holistic approach to the problem as it was obvious that police enforcement alone was ineffective at reducing drug-related activity.

A broad-based community and law enforcement partnership announced today the completion of the Seattle Drug Market Initiative, for the South Seattle Community of Columbia City. Based on a model first developed and successfully implemented in High Point, North Carolina, the Seattle initiative resulted from a United States Department of Justice technical assistance training award that was given to the city under the Drug Market Initiative (DMI) program. 

The Seattle Drug Market Initiative (DMI), an innovative strategy designed to reduce or eliminate overt street drug dealing in Seattle’s residential neighborhoods was well received by business owners and residents alike in the Columbia City neighborhood of South Seattle.

Former Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske and Former City Attorney Tom Carr spearheaded the successful effort to obtain technical assistance after seeing the promising results from other jurisdictions.  A Seattle DMI training team, consisting of representatives from the Seattle Police Department, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, Seattle Municipal Court, and the Seattle Neighborhood Group, received specific training on how to develop and implement the initiative. 

The South Seattle DMI project selected the Columbia City area because of residential and business communities ongoing concerns and requests for action; supporting SPD data; both the Seattle Police’s South Precinct Commander and the City Attorney South Precinct Liaison believed the project fit with the communities desire to try a new approach; the area contains many active community members, businesses, and social services providers who could be partners in the effort; and the area had all the attributes needed to best replicate the successes in North Carolina.

The broader Seattle DMI partnership includes the King County Prosecutor’s Office, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington, various other federal law enforcement agencies based in Seattle, and the Washington State Department of Corrections.  Community partnerships are also critical to the success of a DMI program and a number of citizens, groups, and businesses stepped up to support the community efforts. 

The Drug Market Initiative involves several steps.  A residential neighborhood experiencing an overt open-air illegal drug market is identified through citizen complaints, community input, police calls for service, surveillance, and crime data.  Active sellers operating the drug market are identified.  The police conduct a series of undercover operations making multiple “controlled buys” from these active dealers with the goal of breaking up the operation of the market.  Drug sellers encountered are separated into two groups based on their criminal histories – higher risk offenders who have crimes of violence, weapons offenses, or deal in volume and lower risk offenders who do not have crimes of violence in their histories.

The lower risk sellers’ positive “influential”, often a family member or close friend are identified, contacted by DMI members and requested to help encourage eligible offenders to take advantage of the DMI opportunity to positively change their life. The lower risk drug sellers are advised of their criminal behavior at a “community call-in” and are given an opportunity to avoid prosecution by immediately ceasing their drug dealing and criminal activities.  These lower risk sellers are offered community support and community-based social services help to assist them in redirecting their lives.  Those sellers who refuse to stop their drug dealing are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Higher risk drug sellers are prosecuted in the traditional manner through a coordinated effort between City, County, and Federal Prosecutors.  The community and law enforcement partnership works together to prevent the return of the drug market and improve quality of life in the neighborhood.  

DMI differs from traditional police/prosecution narcotics operations in several important ways: 

  • Under traditional prosecution, lower risk sellers are arrested and prosecuted for a single criminal event.  Under DMI, these sellers supporting the operation of the market are brought together and collectively confronted with their dealing in a “community call-in” prior to arrest and prosecution.
  • Under traditional prosecution, the low risk dealers, if convicted, are sentenced to prison or ordered into services/treatment and are jailed if they fail to comply.  Under DMI, such sellers are offered mentoring/ services/ and treatment prior to prosecution.  Such dealers are not required to accept this help but are required to stop their criminal activity or face swift legal action.
  • Under traditional prosecution, the community is rarely involved in the prosecution effort and often does not know the end result of their calling the police about drug dealing. Under DMI, the community is engaged with increased emphasis on community and law enforcement working together.
  • Under traditional prosecution, the prosecution effort is generally directed at a specific person and event.  Under DMI, the focus of the community and law enforcement partnership is to dismantle the drug market.

The community plays an important role in the Drug Market Initiative by:

  • Being watchful of and immediately reporting subsequent crime such as narcotics selling activity to the police.
  • Reasserting community control over their neighborhood and reinforcing the message that drug dealing will no longer be tolerated.
  • Providing support to lower risk dealers who are prepared to cease criminal activity.
  • Helping to direct low risk sellers to resources in the community that can assist them in becoming law abiding members of the community.
  • Working with community and law enforcement efforts to increase quality of life throughout the neighborhood.

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz believes the initiative gives Seattle a new tool to combat street drug dealing, stating “We had great success with DMI in the East Precinct. I know we will see great things for DMI Columbia City as well.”

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg added, “DMI East was successful. Now it’s time to expand upon the program and take it to other neighborhoods. We are excited to be a part of such ground breaking partnerships with the community and law enforcement.” 

City Attorney Peter Holmes said that the “DMI represents a partnership between a community affected by an open-air drug market and the criminal justice system.  They actively work together toward a common goal of ending the harmful impact of drug dealing.”