- Photo via Seattle.gov.
- Chief Kathleen O'Toole says, "I have questions about who knew what when, and why I wasn’t informed."
A Seattle Police Department investigation that began last month into an officer who wrote most of the city's marijuana tickets has expanded, The Stranger has learned, and now includes another officer while officials try to determine why key information about the tickets was omitted from a report to city officials and hidden from the police chief. The case serves as a test—not of pot tickets, so much, but of the city's ability to investigate a persistent scourge of officials covering up misconduct and protecting officers from punishment.
"The piece of the investigation that continues is about who knew what and when at headquarters, and why that report went over [to the Seattle City Council] without notifying me of these facts," Chief Kathleen O'Toole explained in an interview.
News of the investigation first broke on July 30, when the chief announced that one cop—Officer Randy Jokela—wrote nearly 80 percent of all the city's citations for public pot smoking, and she promised to take Jokela off the streets until an investigation was complete. Most of Jokela's pot tickets were issued to people of color and many of the tickets he wrote included messages about his political motivations (taking issue with the city attorney who supports marijuana legalization). "I have ensured this officer will not be performing patrol duties during the course of this investigation," O'Toole said unequivocally in an e-mail to city employees that same day. More on O'Toole's concerns with the tickets, particularly their politically charged nature, is here.
But after the police union protested the reassignment as a "gross overreaction"—a police union that shares the political viewpoints written on that officer's tickets—O'Toole returned the officer to bicycle patrol last week.
Federal judge James Robart, who is overseeing SPD reforms, expressed concern about returning Jokela to the street, calling his actions, somewhere between "insubordination and abhorrent judgment."
Why did she send the cop back to work? O'Toole explained that the portions of the investigation concerning Jokela had wrapped up and a discipline recommendation is pending. "If I had any concern that he was applying racial bias in his performance right now, he would not be out in the field," O'Toole said. She insisted the influential police union, which has a history of arm-twisting advocacy to protect officers from punishment, did not influence her decision. O'Toole says the officer could face discipline despite being returned to patrol.
The rest of the investigation has a wider scope.
"There are two named employees at this time in the particular case," confirms Pierce Murphy, director of the SPD's Office of Professional Accountability. He would not name the second officer due to confidentiality clauses in officer contracts, nor could he confirm the exact date the second officer was named in the investigation (a process that requires notifying the officer). Neither officer has been been found guilty of misconduct at this time. Murphy says he plans to make recommendations about both officers' discipline—or lack thereof—within a week and a half. O'Toole will mete out any official punishment.
For the chief, who was appointed just two months ago, this case represents a test of whether she can rein in a police department and direct it toward reform.
In this case, supervisors at the SPD must have known that one cop wrote most of these tickets when the SPD issued a report—this is my opinion, technically, but it seems obvious given that Jokela's name and handwriting is all over the citations. But the rot of misconduct is so thick that officers apparently tried to hide information right under the chief's nose. This gets to the most critical problem of the SPD: supervisors and politicians protecting cops accused of misconduct. As I detailed in a feature story this past spring, the department doesn't just have a pattern of excessive force and a troubling pattern with racial bias (which was documented by the US Department of Justice and led to a federal court order for reform), but it also has a history of brass letting cops off the hook and the police union successfully appealing to have misconduct charges overturned.
The best thing that could happen in this case? For SPD officials to determine who suppressed information about Jokela's role in the marijuana citations—hiding it from the chief and city council—and then severely punish that officer. The only thing worse than casual police misconduct on the street is a police hierarchy that tacitly perpetuates such misconduct by covering it up. Unless that institutional tolerance of racially disproportionate, politically motivated policing is quashed, it will happen on the beat forever.
One last thing: Please consider these illuminating comments from the chief:
"I've been telling officers at roll calls they need to leave their political agenda at home," O'Toole said during our interview. "Whether we see people making cartoons relating to the city attorney, whether we see officer on SPD e-mail making comments about their political views of the city attorney, whether I see officers like Jokela writing things on citations or enforcement motivated by political agenda—it is completely inappropriate. I have seen that since I’ve been here."
O'Toole, who has spent a career leading police forces in the US and in Ireland, added this interesting statement about how SPD officers tend to fuse political leanings into their daily work: "I find it very interesting because I haven’t experienced it before."