More than a dozen black binders, each with at least two inches of documented evidence, were atop tables on the stage. Names were in bold and underlined on the front.
In the first three rows of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, the suspected drug dealers named in those binders filled the red seats next to family and friends in what felt like an intervention.
"If this was an ordinary day, I would be your prosecutor," King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told the men and women Thursday. Some could get 20 months in prison or even more, he said.
But this night, Satterberg came with a carrot, not a stick.
He announced an opportunity police and prosecutors in Seattle had never given in a community meeting: Stop dealing drugs and you won't get prosecuted.
Interim Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, wearing his dress uniform, had written a letter last week to the dealers. He promised that if they showed at the Central District meeting they would not be arrested and repeated that promise again Thursday.
Police and prosecutors also invited about 100 concerned Central District residents and business owners.
"We want to see something different happen, and I hope this will be a chance for you to take a different path," Diaz told the suspected dealers. "This is not a joke , and it's not a threat. You're here because people really care about you."
But authorities -- including Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr and Assistant U.S. Attorney Vince Lombardi -- were clear: If the dealers didn't immediately stop all criminal activity, the binders would become evidence for the state and the drug dealers would go to prison.
"Don't think because you're not some giant drug dealer dealing kilos I can't charge you," Lombardi said.
Called the Seattle Drug Market Initiative, the strategy was developed by Professor David M. Kennedy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and implemented in High Point, N.C., among other cities. Kennedy spoke to the Seattle City Council earlier this year.
Police identified Central District drug dealers in undercover operations and sorted them into two groups based on their criminal histories: high-risk offenders with a history a violence, weapons offenses or volume deals and low-risk offenders who do not have violent criminal histories.
Police talked to family members or friends of the low-risk offenders to help. They were also offered community support and social services after police collected evidence of their suspected drug activity.
Not all of those given the opportunity to participate Thursday showed up.
The roughly five-block area along 23rd Avenue, including Union, Jackson and Madison streets, was targeted because of the concern of residents and business owners and their requests for action. Data from the Seattle Police Department also helped to define the area, said City Attorney Tom Carr said.
Efforts started last year.
Halfway through the roughly hour-long meeting, East Precinct Capt. Paul McDonagh called attention to a screen set up behind the tables of evidence.
"If you happen to see yourself, feel free to raise your hand," he said.
For three minutes, the silent video mixed police surveillance footage and still frames from undercover drug operations. Mug shots of some dealers arrested with violent histories were mixed in.
The room was nearly silent.
The best footage showed suspects selling drugs to undercover officers. The clips could end up being see in court of the dealers didn't take the offer, McDonagh said.
"You have choices these people do not," he said, pointing to mug shots displayed around the tables of evidence binders.
There were 12 of them -- three were the size of posters and stated the men were federally charged. The others, the size of a newspaper pages, had the word "arrested" at the bottom.
"I need your help to change your ways and to make sure our students aren't approaching certain things that can turn their life around," Garfield High School Principal Ted Howard said.
The mug shot poster on the right side of the stage showed Eric Sanford.
Last September the high school dropout and described leader of the violent Deuce 8 street gang drew attention from dozens of students outside Garfield. Some treated him like a celebrity, jockeying for a chance to shake his hand.
"When your kids cross the street," Sanford told Howard, "they're mine."
In April, he pleaded guilty to illegal gun possession.
"The people you saw on the video and the people you see in these pictures they told us we would never ever arrest them," McDonagh said in front of mug shot of Sanford and others.
Those identified as high-risk offenders have or are expected to be prosecuted in coordinated efforts between Seattle, King County and federal prosecutors.
Police and prosecutors also asked community member to support the low-risk dealers trying to quit the business, and report those who don't.
"Here's my promise," Carr told the group. "I promise we've got a lot of help for you in this room and this can end. I also promise that if it doesn't I can prosecute you for stealing a candy bar and put you in jail for a year. I can and I will."
A training grant to travel to cities using the program came from the Department of Justice after lobbying from Carr and former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, now the White House drug czar. The Seattle Drug Market Initiative team consists of personnel from the Seattle Police Department, Carr's office, Seattle Municipal Court and the Seattle Neighborhood Group.
The Seattle initiative is a partner with Satterberg's office, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the State Corrections Department and several federal law enforcement agencies.
Community partners are also involved in the effort, including Seattle Vocational Institute, and the state Department of Social and Health Services.
Four people involved in training, including McDonagh, traveled to High Point, N.C., in January and Alexandria, Va., in September to learn about the program. In April, the group went to Milwaukee, and four weeks ago met with authorities in Nashville.
"When we got the grant, we wanted to make sure we replicated the program exactly," Carr said.
Kennedy and High Point, N.C., police met with drug dealers there in May 2004 and presented a similar scenario. As a result, there was a 35 percent reduction in violent crime, according to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The strategy was repeated three times in the following three years, and authorities say serious crime in the city fell 20 percent.
Among those who spoke to the suspected drug dealers Thursday was Crystal Fields, a recovering addict from the Central District. A former user of crack and heroin, she started using drugs at 13 and stopped at 40.
"My mom, she gave up on me," Fields said. "I couldn't even call her from jail -- she wouldn't accept my calls." Her kids didn't trust her because she lied so many times.
It took decades for her to break the cycle of hanging out with addicts and going back to jail. She never had an opportunity like the one presented Thursday.
"You get a chance to rewind your life," Satterberg told the group, saying the moment was like a movie scene. "No one else I know has gotten that opportunity.
"You get to decide how your life turns out."
By CASEY MCNERTHNEY
Seattle PI . com Staff Writer
(unable to post exact link due to forum rules)
"Interesting note- within a week one of the drug dealers was caught selling on his same old corner, and was immediately and severely prosecuted. I have to say I'm pretty impressed with the progressive thinking Seattle shows with this program. We need more programs in this vein (so to speak. If the participants are too stupid to change their behaviour after something like that, they deserve to be punished."
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