Ballard businesses say they’ve seen startling increase in crimes like illegal dumping, shoplifting

Dozens of Ballard business owners say they’ve seen a noticeable increase in crime over the past six months and, worried for the safety of their employees and the future of their businesses, are asking for the city’s help, according to a new report conducted by three local business associations.

The Ballard Alliance, Ballard Brewed Coalition and the North Seattle Industrial Association reported Thursday the new findings reveal the “significant financial impact that criminal activity presents for businesses struggling to survive the economic impacts of the (coronavirus) pandemic.” The survey, which reports incidents that occurred between April and September, includes responses from 88 local Ballard businesses, many of which fall into retail, professional services or food and beverage categories.

More than 76% of the respondents said their business had experienced increased crime compared to last year.

While the vast majority of crimes described either involved illegal dumping — usually involving needles or other drug paraphernalia — or shoplifting, some incidents have involved assault or weapons, according to the survey. One business owner reported a “backpack bomb” had been thrown through its window, while another said it experienced a drive-by shooting, the survey said.

The 88 businesses also reported about $656,175 in damages stemming from more than 7,000 criminal incidents over the past six months. More than 50% also said their employees don’t feel safe working in Ballard, and 17% said they’ve lost employees this year because of “non-COVID related safety concerns.”

In the survey, Mighty-O Donuts, located on Northwest Market Street and 17th Avenue Northwest, reported one incident where someone came in and tried to smash its windows with a metal water bottle. In another incident, a man, who workers said appeared mentally unstable, walked in with a gun strapped to his leg and refused to leave. Both times, the donut shop said, it took police hours to respond.

Adam McQueen, the owner of Skål Beer Hall, also said he’s concerned for the safety of his staff and customers.

“I’ve had staff and guests verbally abused and threatened in our street café, including an incident involving a knife and a gun,” McQueen said in the report. “Every day, I am fighting to help my business survive the pandemic, and yet, I’ve been forced to spend thousands of dollars this year on repairs and security reinforcements all because crime is essentially going unchecked in Seattle.”

Seattle Police Department (SPD) Det. Patrick Michaud said Thursday that the department’s crime dashboard — which also includes offenses involving Ballard residences, not just businesses — actually shows total crime is currently down in the Ballard area.

According to the dashboard, there was a drop in reported offenses in North and South Ballard between September and October — November’s offenses haven’t yet been recorded — and a decline in cases between April and June.

During the summer, however, there was a consistent increase in reported cases, reaching a peak in September before starting to slow back down. The dashboard also reports 1,409 offenses between April and September — thousands fewer than the number the Ballard businesses associations are reporting.

Ballard Alliance Executive Director Mike Stewart said the difference between SPD’s count and theirs could be attributed to a recent decline in 911 calls.

“These business owners have been reporting these crimes, and when they’re not getting responses and four hours goes by or a day goes by … they stop reporting,” Stewart said. “I’m not shocked or surprised that their numbers are going to look a little different from ours.”

Michaud added the fact that offenses are starting to creep back down is a “good sign.”

“All that being said, the perception of crime in an area is incredibly difficult to track and even harder to combat,” he wrote in an email. “We continue to have officers in that area every day and even additional resources patrolling there with the advent of the (community response group). So while we are creeping back into ‘normal’ territory, we aren’t done trying to get that number down to zero.”

The police department’s community response group, which interim Chief Adrian Diaz launched in September and aims to put more patrol officers on the streets, was created specifically to help improve response times to 911 calls. A week after the group’s first day, Diaz said in a news conference that it was able to respond to emergency calls within seven minutes.

Stewart added that while business owners are “out of time and effort and energy,” he doesn’t blame the police department.

“I feel for SPD,” he said. “We understand the attrition of police officers and know they have to adjust resources to have folks handling protests and those sorts of things. And it’s all important. But at the same time, we’re also seeing these issues … and we wanted to highlight the magnitude of that.”

The reason behind the increase in crime hasn’t been immediately clear to Stewart. Some of the activity could be related to nearby homeless encampments — which have grown since the pandemic began — he said, but several of the offenses seem to be related to “more organized crime.” For example, he said, break-ins at retail stores have involved theft of expensive clothes or outdoor gear.

The city has seen an increase in trash and illegal dumping all year, which has been attributed in part to a dip in staffing due to COVID-19 protocols and a reduction in volunteer cleanups. In early November, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a $5.6 million plan to address trash in the city’s parks and public spaces, a plan that would boost maintenance in parks, business districts and natural areas.

“Small businesses are the backbone of Seattle’s economic and cultural life, and this has been an undeniably difficult year for them,” Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said in a statement. “The Mayor remains committed to working with our small businesses to protect public safety, ensure the City’s policies meet their needs, and help them keep their doors open during this unprecedented time.”

The business associations also sent a letter to Durkan, North Seattle City Council members, City Attorney Peter Holmes and SPD’s Diaz on Tuesday afternoon, informing them of the survey’s results and asking them to acknowledge the impact on Ballard businesses and commit to developing near-term solutions. None had responded to the letter as of Thursday afternoon, Stewart said.

“It’s really reached a breaking point for some of these owners,” Stewart said. “And the municipal government is responsible for maintaining safe conditions for our businesses and residents.”

Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.

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