Rising crime rattles Ballard's beloved nightlife scene as a city council election looms
Wil Barrett is hanging with a group of regulars at The Sloop Tavern near the Ballard Locks.
“It's the perfect beer bar. You come down here every night of the week and you're going to know at least a handful of faces,” he said.
But underneath the warm buzz, there's also a growing sense of unease about crime.
Patrick Files, who took over the Sloop from his dad more than a decade ago, said one of his top concerns this election year is public safety.
“We had a lady who was out here, and she had a knife out, and was threatening to stab people as they walked by the business,” he said.
Files called 911, but the police never came.
“They were like, ‘Yeah, we can't get anyone there,’" he said. "I don't expect them to come at all if we get broken into.”
Other bar and business owners told KUOW similar stories about how theft, vandalism, and the threat of violence have rattled Ballard's beloved nightlife scene in recent years. Their concerns around crime could play a role in shaping the city council race in District 6, which includes Ballard, this fall.
The violent crime rate declined in some cities in 2022, but Seattle's hit a 15-year high. Property crime in Seattle is up around 17 percent from 2019. Most of the businesses KUOW interviewed for this story say crime is one of their top issues in the upcoming council race for District 6, which includes Ballard, Fremont, and other neighborhoods.
Michael Charles, a Seattle political consultant, said he’s not surprised.
“These owners feel like it's impacting their business, their bottom line, and they already have short margins,” Charles said.
Charles said crime is sometimes a bigger issue for certain voters — such as mom-and-pop businesses or homeowners — in part because it’s not easy for them to move. But he said it's not yet clear how the issue will impact this particular race.
Just down the street from the Sloop, Veronica Castaneda runs a combined taco stand and liquor store, which used to draw evening revelers looking for a late nosh or nightcap.
But these days she closes early, due to safety concerns.
“One guy just decided to come in and grab a bottle. I was not prepared for that. When I approached him, he got a pocketknife and chased me,” she said. In the end, Castaneda wasn't hurt. But she and daughter, who also works at the store, said they often feel uneasy, especially at night.
“Every day before work we pray that we are safe,” Castaneda said.
The businesses KUOW spoke with did not agree on what's causing the spike in crime, or what a solution might look like, or about whether to back Strauss, their incumbent councilperson, or the two challengers trying to unseat him, Shea Wilson and Pete Hanning.
Hanning is a former bar owner himself. For decades he ran the now-shuttered Red Door in the Fremont neighborhood, which is also part of District 6. Now head of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, Hanning is making public safety the top issue of his campaign. He said he wants to boost police retention and hiring, while at the same time supporting reforms to the department.
“We have to create a situation where the police feel like they're valued. And that they're part of the solution," Hanning said. "It doesn't mean that we're not going to hold them accountable when they use excessive force.”
Seattle has lost hundreds of officers in recent years — more as a proportion of its police force than any other major city in the United States, according to one academic analysis. And like other cities, Seattle is now having a hard time recruiting new cops.
Hanning blames the city council, in part.
In 2020, following nationwide protests of police brutality and facing a Seattle police union that has dug in its heels against making certain reforms, a majority on the council vowed to defund the police. District 6's Dan Strauss was among them.
To be clear: The police budget was trimmed slightly, but the council never followed through on that promise to defund by 50%. Nevertheless, both of Strauss’s opponents are trying to make it an issue in the race for city council.
Attorney Shea Wilson, who is also running in District 6, said Seattle police are understaffed, particularly compared to other cities. If elected, he said he would make it a priority to increase the size of the force, “to be able to do the kind of enforcement that it will take to clean up the streets.”
Wilson also blames the city council’s “defund” rhetoric for harming police retention and recruitment efforts. And he said transforming the police force to rid it of problems including brutality will take more money, not less.
For his part, incumbent Strauss recently said he does not regret his support for the defund movement back in 2020. But he's also said he was merely willing to explore the idea of 50% cuts and never fully supported the idea.
When it comes to this campaign, Strauss told KUOW he doesn't think the council’s actions or rhetoric have hurt police recruitment and retention.
“All of the officers that I know I have a really good relationship with," he said. "Some of that comes from me having a District 6 office that is housed at the same place as a North Precinct substation."
Like his challengers, Strauss also said he wants to hire more police, and backs hiring bonuses to help make it happen.
Not all of Ballard nightlife establishments are feeling the pain, including Max Genereaux, who owns Hattie's Hat, the Ballard Smoke Shop, and the Sunset Tavern. Genereaux noted that nearby retail stores have been hit much harder, by theft and other issues. For him, trash is a top concern.
"It's tough when there's just so much garbage that's thrown around the neighborhood," he said.
The primary election isn't until August — a long way off.
For now, back at the Sloop Tavern, the regulars have a lot of other things on their mind.
"There's a playoff Kraken game going on and we're debating movies right now,” Wil Barrett said.