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.

Crosscut archive image.
Many of those cited for smoking pot in public give an address for this block of Third Avenue, where an emergency service provider operates. Credit: Nina Selipsky

The emphasis on downtown would, by itself, make it more likely that those struggling with housing would be more likely to be cited. But there is another contributing factor. Director of Administrative Services at DESC Greg Jensen explained that, although marijuana is legal in Washington, DESC gets federal funding so it cannot explicitly allow marijuana use. And while his organization can take a “don’t ask don’t tell” approach toward its apartments, a marijuana ban is enforced in the overnight emergency shelters. “Those getting cited,” he said, “are people who are more than likely using our emergency shelter so they don’t have somewhere to use [marijuana] safely.”

Jensen compared the issue to the city’s new tobacco smoking ban for parks. “It’s the same sort of issue,” he said. “They’re a disenfranchised group who don’t have anywhere else to go.”

When told of the number of those in emergency shelters who had received citations, Councilmember O’Brien echoed Jensen’s sentiment. “If the reality is that people are living somewhere where they cannot smoke, they are going to smoke on the street,” he said. “So here’s something that’s legal, but certain parts of the population can’t participate.”

Detective Patrick Michaud of the Seattle Police Department admitted there is still a lot officers are trying to figure out. “We’re all a part of this grand experiment,” he said, “trying to figure out how enforcement and legalization can co-exist. Nobody knows.” Michaud pointed to the numbers given to the council as proof the department is trying.

According to King County’s Committee to End Homelessness, 67 percent of those who struggle with housing are people of color. Relative to that number, the number of people cited who were black and listed a shelter or service center as his or her address was not actually that disproportional: About a third were black, the rest white.

Of course, relative to the broader population, that number is still slanted. But it raises the question of whether we are viewing the police department’s numbers in the right way. Perhaps this leads us, as everything in Seattle seems to do these days, back to housing.


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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.