Responding to questions that came up in a Stranger article I wrote in August—why are pot possession arrests higher this year than every other year of the last decade?—Mayor Mike McGinn posted an FAQ on his blog yesterday about pot enforcement.
McGinn writes, “Most police contacts involving marijuana occur because of an unrelated offense. For example, of the incident reports filed between January 1st and April 30th of this year, there were only eighty that cited possession of marijuana,” he says. “In only six of those incidents was marijuana the reason for the contact.” McGinn is correct in that analysis—most incidents involving pot don’t start due to a pot investigation.
McGinn says pot is the lowest law enforcement priority for police. My article, however, didn't ask whether marijuana is the lowest priority for police because priority is nebulous and impossible to measure. Rather, the question was: Why were marijuana arrests so much higher this year than any year since 2003, when voters passed a de-prioritization measure? I reported that Seattle police arrested 172 people for marijuana possession in the first six months of this year—a sharp uptick from last year’s records. (It bears mentioning that an arrest doesn't require booking someone into jail, but simply an officer detaining a person and filing an incident report that is referred to the City Attorney’s office for possible prosecution.)
Why was that 172 number I cited so different than the 80 number McGinn cites?
McGinn is using a different set of numbers. I was examining data from the city attorney’s office for a period of six months—not the four months McGinn referred to—in addition to police summaries. (McGinn orginally wrote that the four months were "the time period covered by the Stranger’s public disclosure request" but has since removed that language from his blog.) Also, in referring specifically to police incidents, McGinn omits the fact that several of those incidents conflate more than one person into a single report. So those 80 incidents represent 91 people. Next, in the two following months, May and June, the city attorney’s office recorded another 81 referrals for marijuana possession. That’s 172 people overall.
When I got these numbers from the city attorney’s office, I was skeptical. They seemed incongruent with the trends of the last few years, when the city attorney’s office reported only about 125 cases annually (or about 75 per six-month period). I pressed the city attorney’s office repeatedly to explain why they might be higher. They never provided an explanation, but Assistant City Attorney Supervisor Kevin Kilpatrick stood by his numbers. “We have had the opportunity to recheck the marijuana reports sent to our office, and the results were the same,” he said.
I spoke to the SPD, attempting to better understand why the numbers were so high. They presented a summary of the 80 incident reports (for 91 people). But the SPD could not explain why the numbers were higher this year. Nor could the mayor’s office, which said it would look into the matter and get back to me.
In his post yesterday, McGinn puts forth a theory: A new system to transmit police reports automatically to the City Attorney's office “may account for the increase in incident reports involving marijuana, because in the past some volume of low-priority incident reports were probably never sent to the City Attorney’s Office in the first place.” If so, that’s good. It means we are seeing a more accurate picture of marijuana enforcement in Seattle. But without comparing past years’ records (including the ones that were “probably never sent”) to this year’s records, we can’t be sure that this explanation is correct. The mayor’s office should look into this and reach a conclusion that is more than speculative.
That said, I did make a mistake in the article. I wrote that “147 people have been referred to prosecutors with pot as the only charge” out of the 172 people. That isn’t correct. According to report from the SPD for the first four months, 20 people had a secondary criminal charge, and in the next two months, the City Attorney’s Office reported that five people had a secondary charge. That’s 25 people. But what I didn’t see at the time was that 15 of the cases involved a warrant out for someone’s arrest. That taken into account, it appears that 40 of the 172 cases had pot in addition to another charge. That would leave not 147 pot-only cases, but 132 marijuana-only cases in six months. We'll update the online article with a correction. That’s still sharply higher than last year’s figures; records show there were 28 cases for pot as the only charge all of last year (or an average of 14 in six months). Perhaps this shift in the numbers is a result of new data-tracking.
As for the argument that police are making pot the lowest priority—because marijuana isn't the reason for most stops—I’m not sure I agree with that as a blanket statement (again, it's nebulous). SPD made 31 arrests at Northwest Folklife this year, referring all of those cases for prosecution, and none of them were combined with another charge, according to the city attorney's records. Spending time detaining someone for marijuana, writing a report, taking evidence, etc., is a waste of time for our police. They enjoy a wide array of discretion—discretion cops use all the time when they see a minor offense—and voters have asked them to make marijuana their lowest priority. And while police have the right to do it, for sure (pot is illegal, so don't smoke pot in front of a cop), it’s still a waste of time that could be better spent on real priorities.