Seattle Police Department chief Kathleen O'Toole has launched an internal investigation into an officer who personally wrote nearly 80 percent of tickets issued this year for smoking marijuana in public, according to an internal e-mail O'Toole sent officers. The Stranger obtained the e-mail through city sources who asked to remain anonymous.
The tickets, punishable by $55 in fines, have been handed out disproportionally to people of color and the poor, according to a recently released city report.
"I have ensured this officer will not be performing patrol duties during the course of this investigation," O'Toole said.
Last year, City Attorney Pete Holmes pushed hard to create the ticket for smoking marijuana in public, which led to speculation that the ticket would be issued disproportionately to people of color. The city council cooperated with Holmes’s request by passing an ordinance, but first the council inserted clauses into the law that say cops should give suspects a “first warning” and requiring a semi-annual report on the ticket’s impacts.
O'Toole says the officer added a note to the tickets, requesting the attention of "Petey Holmes." She didn't explain the officer's motivation, but perhaps it was an attempt to deride Holmes for being what O'Toole described as "a vocal advocate for recent changes to Washington State’s marijuana laws" in 2012. "The ongoing review of the officer’s ticket reports," O'Toole wrote in her e-mail, "also found that, in one case, while contacting two people for public use of marijuana, the officer used a coin toss to determine which of the two individuals would receive a citation. In another ticket report, the officer refers to Washington’s voter-enacted changes to marijuana laws as 'silly.'"
The first report on the ticket's impacts was released July 23. Although black people make up 7.9 percent of the city’s population, researchers found police issued 32.9 percent of their pot tickets to black people. The study by SPD’s Loren T. Atherley and Mark Baird adds, “Early observations suggest a correlation between this low level civil infraction and people of disadvantaged socioeconomic means.” Specifically, 46 percent of the people who received tickets had addresses in government housing or associated with economic distress such as a shelter.
Why the disparate impact on minorities and the poor? The report doesn’t reach a conclusion, but at least one answer appears obvious. The only locations police have handed out the tickets issued this year, the report explains, are around 3rd Avenue downtown, Victor Steinbrueck Park, and Occidental Park (locations typically populated by racial minorities waiting for the bus and a park where vagrants congregate). But police handed out zero tickets outside the downtown core (in a city that is 69.5 percent white).
"There is no reason to think that public consumption of marijuana is dominated by black or homeless people," Lisa Dauggaard, deputy director of the Public Defender Association, said earlier this week about the report. "Common sense and all available data say that in Seattle, the opposite is true." She says that if writing tickets for marijuana smoking in public is prioritized, "it needs to be true throughout the city, including in locations where those getting citations are likely to be affluent and/or white."
The officer who wrote 80 percent of the tickers is under investigation by the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which is reviewing the officer’s conduct and professionalism. The officer is a member of the West Precinct Bike Unit, personally writing 66 of the 83 marijuana tickets issued this year, according to O'Toole.
For the police department’s part, Sergeant Sean Whitcomb had said earlier this week—before today's news came out—that the tickets were handed out "in direct response to community complaints about open use." But the report finds only one ticket was handed out after a citizen complained and an officer was dispatched to the scene. In addition, Whitcomb says officers have not necessarily given suspects first warnings, instead relying on "department messaging" such as the SPD’s blog posts. (Homeless people are probably not reading blogs and may not know using pot outside is illegal.) How many of these cases actually involved the officer providing a verbal warning first, as outlined in the law?
Perhaps the investigation will find out.
(This post was updated at 5:24 p.m. with details from O'Toole's letter.)