Questions raised about number of minorities receiving alcohol, pot citations

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Open containers: Did anybody get cited?

A University of Washington analysis of Seattle Police Department citations for public consumption of alcohol and marijuana suggest that racial disproportionality is perhaps more deeply seated in enforcement practices than city officials would like to believe.

The report is coming less than two weeks after a discussion between the Seattle City Council and Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole of disproportionality in one of the areas, pot-consumption citations.

In a full council briefing last week, SPD officials presented a sample of 85 marijuana citations from July 1 to December 31, 2014. Of those, 27 percent were given to black men. According to the 2010 census, the city’s black population is 7.9 percent. As members of the council tried to wrap their heads around what that meant, Chief O’Toole pushed back with two points: First, the sample size was too small to draw conclusions.

Second, she said, nearly all of the complaints came from downtown, so it’s worth looking at the demographics there rather than citywide.

O’Toole also questioned whether, considering the scrutiny of police activities, it was even worth issuing citations. “I don’t want to sit here every six months and respond to a handful of tickets,” she said.

However, the UW report, commissioned by the civilian police review board, the Community Police Commission, shows that citations for public consumption of alcohol, which constitute a larger sample size than its marijuana counterpart, go in nearly identically disproportionate fashion to African Americans and even more so to Native Americans.

The report also shows that, while citations for marijuana use were predominantly downtown, marijuana-related calls were spread across the city, concentrated, in fact, in SPD’s north precinct.

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The Community Police Commission reached out to UW Sociology Professor Katherine Beckett to look into what the CPC called “disparate impact” within the Seattle Police Department – essentially whether there were patterns of disproportionality and where. The timing of the report with Chief O’Toole’s presentation appears to be coincidental.

Beckett used three data sources for her study: citation records, 911 calls and interviews with both citizens and police officers. The last source, said Beckett, is unreliable because she did not gather as many interviews as she’d hoped.

Of 637 citations for consuming alcohol in public between January 2013 and August 2014, 28 percent were issued to African Americans. Additionally, and perhaps more curiously, 13 percent went to Native Americans. The combined American Indian and Alaskan Native population in Seattle is a mere 0.8 percent.

Like marijuana, the vast majority of these citations occurred downtown.

The police department received over 49,000 complaints of public consumption of alcohol. By that standard, 637 is a relatively small number. Nevertheless, reads the report, “this is a nontrivial number.”

With regard to marijuana-related calls, the city received around 1,200 between January 2013 and August 2014. Of those, 34 percent came from the North Precinct, which covers everything north of the ship canal. The highest concentration of calls came from the University District.

The West Precinct downtown and the South Precinct in the Rainier Valley fielded 19 and 18 percent, respectively.

During O’Toole’s briefing to the council, she said, “I don’t remember any complaints about pot smoking coming to my office in the last six months about any area other than Westlake Park and downtown.” One possible explanation for the the difference between her confident assertions about what her office hears and the UW report's findings lies in semantics. SPD Officer Lauren Lovanhill said the complaints O’Toole mentioned were not service calls, but tips from e-mail, Twitter and word of mouth. She also said complaints could refer to broader calls for action from community groups. The Downtown Seattle Association, for example, has been particularly active in trying to clean up the area from Westlake to Pike Place Market.

Another question is whether these calls led to arrests for drug dealing, rather than simply public consumption citation. At one point in her briefing, O’Toole mentioned the department had fielded calls for drug dealing from areas like the Aurora.

Beckett admitted that it was difficult to catch the nuances of all the marijuana calls. But after going back to the data, she said 12 percent of the marijuana-related dispatches identified suspected marijuana delivery as an issue, not enough to undo the overall picture of problems in how pot-consumption complaints are handled. "Even if we assume all of these are civilian calls emanating from the North Precinct, and omit them from the analysis," she wrote in an e-mail, "the results indicate that a plurality of marijuana-related complaints pertaining to the public display/consumption of marijuana emanated from the North Precinct."

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The CPC commissioned the report as a way to better inform some of its recommendations for changing the Seattle Police Department – in its role as a party to the settlement agreement between Seattle and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to eliminate problems of excessive force and biased policing. Over the next several weeks, the CPC will draft recommendations.

The CPC contacted the DOJ with the results of this report, apparently to maintain open communications. In response, the DOJ took issue with several pieces. These concerns mirrored Chief O’Toole’s: The sample sizes were too small and the demographics may reflect the make-up of downtown rather than the whole city.

The DOJ also cautioned against assuming these numbers were a reflection of something unwarranted. “Disproportionate impact may sometimes be caused by legitimate policing efforts,” read the DOJ’s letter.

CPC co-chair Lisa Daugaard agreed with the latter. But, she said, there’s still something harmful in these numbers. Members of the CPC issued their own response to the DOJ saying, essentially, that regardless of how the numbers shake out or what they actually reflect, the fact is the disproportionality exists. “We seek to address whether there may be alternative responses to the problem in question,” reads the CPC’s response, “that are equally efficacious but avoid inflicting harm in a racially disparate manner.”

It’s easy to jump to conclusions about what these numbers mean, which is exactly why the DOJ is urging the CPC to proceed slowly. “Part of [the DOJ’s] wariness,” said CPC Director Fe Lopez in a meeting last week, “is how this report is going to be interpreted.”

One anecdote that did come out of Beckett’s interviews with police officers is that they don’t want to issue citations, but don’t really have any alternative. Captain Joe Kessler, who was a part of the CPC’s meeting last week, called the conflicting pressure to clean up certain areas of the city and the scrutiny of citations a sort of Catch-22 for officers.

As an answer, O’Toole suggested dropping marijuana citations altogether; Councilmember Mike O’Brien wondered if the complaint based system was to blame. But in the context of this report, those questions get more complicated. Would SPD be willing to stop citing open containers? And what does it mean if calls are coming from all over the city.

CPC members acknowledged that the sky is not falling. The citations are only $27 and there are, perhaps, higher priority issues to deal with. But the report does directly address bias, one of the two centerpieces – along with excessive use of force — in the settlement agreement reforms. “It’s not trivial,” said Daugaard. In other words, don’t look for the CPC to drop the issue anytime soon.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.