Half of pot citations go to homeless

By David Kroman
Crosscut archive image.

Occidental Park in Pioneer Square is one of the areas near homeless shelters and a spot for occasional public use of pot.

By David Kroman

At the request of the Seattle City Council, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole came to City Hall Monday to address the disproportionate number of marijuana citations issued to black men. That's a problem in the latest statistics, so much so that that O'Toole wondered whether her department should stop handing out tickets. But not included in the SPD report is an even greater disproportionality toward a different Seattle population: Of the 85 citations between July 1 and Dec. 31 2014, 40 were issued to people living in emergency or transitional housing.

Although Seattle is only 7 percent black, 27 percent of marijuana citations went to African Americans. When Chief O’Toole appeared before the council Monday morning, there was significant debate as to what that number actually means: Does this reveal bias in the police department, bias in those who call and complain, a blip in a relatively small sample size or something entirely different?

Lacking from that debate was a real understanding of who, beyond his or her skin color, was being cited. The disproportionality, said Councilmember Mike O’Brien, “doesn’t necessarily mean that something bad is happening, but we need to look into it.”

Through records obtained from the Seattle Municipal Court later Monday, Crosscut found that 40 of those cited for public marijuana use reside in several downtown emergency shelters, most commonly either the Downtown Emergency Services Center on Third Avenue or a Compass Housing facility in Pioneer Square. Knowing that nearly half of all citations are given to those in tenuous housing situations may aid in understanding exactly who is being cited.

SPD’s numbers are under particular scrutiny because of Washington State’s place as the first state to legalize marijuana (with Colorado). An AP story about the disproportionality of citations in Seattle, based on reporting in the Seattle Times, has circulated through national news publications, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.

No one is more cognizant of this than Chief O’Toole, who was aggravated that this issue was getting such widespread attention. She expressed concern about spending too much of her time on a relatively small number of citations. “I don’t want to sit here every six months and respond to a handful of tickets,” she told the council.

In fact, she wondered whether the department should even bother handing out citations. “I’m here to look for some guidance,” she said.

O’Brien conceded, “It’s hard to call this a robust sample.” But, the council member said, the issue is important.

Some 94 percent of citations occurred in the West precinct, which covers downtown. Many of those citations happened along the Pike/Pine corridor, between the Pike Place Market and Westlake Park. This emphasis on downtown is largely the result of Seattle’s 9 ½ block strategy, the city’s program to clean up “public disorder” in Seattle’s major tourist hub.

Additionally, citations are often issued in response to complaints. So, considering the downtown corridor’s reliance on tourism and the Downtown Seattle Association’s efforts to make downtown public space feel more welcoming, it’s no surprise that these complaints lead to the busiest part of Seattle.

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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.