The Seattle Times described the bust on May 4 as a major operation to sweep drug dealers off the streets of Pioneer Square, saying that undercover narcotics detectives rounded up 15 of the "most prolific sellers of crack cocaine." A reporter and photographer joined the officers—posting their story even before the police issued a self-congratulatory press release. A picture of a black woman in handcuffs ran in the paper above a caption calling it a "bonus arrest." Seattle's sole daily newspaper spoke only to cops and prosecutors, who hailed the three-month investigation as an antidote to neighborhood complaints and portrayed the defendants as chronic sellers and big-time dealers. Seattle Times reporter Sara Jean Green didn't talk to anyone else—such as experts on the impact of buy busts downtown—or examine police records to see just what sort of people were arrested.
There's another side to the story.
Records obtained from the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office show that the 15 people were almost exclusively selling minute amounts of crack, had little or no money, and were overwhelmingly nonwhite (reflecting a racial disparity chronic to police buy busts in Seattle). These were small-time dealers. And local experts agree that sentencing them to prison won't solve the problems of drug markets or drug use in Pioneer Square.
The total combined amount of crack on 14 of the defendants was only 3.1 grams—a street value of about $310. That averages about 0.2 grams per person. Only one defendant had a notable quantity of drugs or money: 4.85 grams and $583.76.
Of the 14 other individuals, only five had any cash on them whatsoever, other than the money that the undercover officers had given them. According to jail and police records obtained from the county prosecutor's office, cash amounts on the defendants were $2.49, $2.62, $6.48, $61, and $392. The other nine had literally $0 on their person.
The sweep was conducted, the Seattle Times reports, "in hopes that prosecutors can successfully argue for stiffer prison sentences, taking the repeat dealers off the streets for up to five years," according to a prosecutor assisting the Seattle Police Department (SPD).
The Seattle Times editorial board also chimed in: "Police and prosecutors going full throttle on drug dealers is encouraging. Bravo."
But Lisa Daugaard, director of the Defender Association's Racial Disparity Project, which has followed the city's buy-bust operations closely for the last decade, says of the defendants: "If they sold drugs, it seems highly likely it was to make a few dollars so they could immediately buy more drugs for their own use. We should be able to address that problem humanely through a public-health strategy."
Indeed, police records show the defendants were not drug-ring leaders, as the Seattle Times suggested by calling them "some of the... most prolific sellers of crack cocaine," but unsophisticated addicts. One undercover officer—who repeatedly told the suspect, "Again, I am not the police"—reported that the suspect "continually asked me if he could have 'just one hit' from me." The man was arrested for 0.4 grams of crack and had no money on his person.
Based on officers' descriptions, seven of the suspects are black, five are Hispanic, two are white (although one of those may actually have been Hispanic, based on name), and one is Native American.
Chasms in racial disparity are typical of Seattle buy busts, historically speaking. While drug sellers are usually white, even in open-air markets, police disproportionately bust nonwhite suspects. Katherine Beckett, a researcher at the University of Washington, and three other researchers concluded in a 2005 study on drug arrests in Seattle: "This overrepresentation primarily results from law enforcement's focus on crack users, and especially on black and Latino crack users." They added: "We find that law enforcement's focus on crack users does not appear to be a function of the frequency with which crack is exchanged, the concentration of crack transactions exchanges outdoors, or other race-neutral factors." In addition, Beckett wrote in another report called "Race and Drug Law Enforcement in Seattle" in 2004: "By contrast, the SPD conducts very few operations in open-air drug markets where whites, and heroin, predominate."
For this sweep, SPD captain Steve Brown said it was a way "to consider how best to disrupt the mechanism of the market." The Seattle Times editorial board noted: "To reduce crime and a sense of menace downtown, busting repeat drug dealers in Pioneer Square could make a real difference."
But it is unlikely to make any difference. We've been through this before—to zero effect. The SPD conducted a major drug bust in April 2009, netting 30 people. SPD declared on its website: "Belltown Drug Ring Smashed by Seattle PD." Three weeks later, the Seattle Times talked to a neighborhood leader who said the "regulars" were already back.
"In the short term, I think it indicates a message to those openly dealing that there are going to be some immediate consequences," says Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. "Does that mean that they won't be replaced with others? No," he says. "They will be back."
"Typically, there is no long-term impact," says Daugaard. "The basic law of supply and demand drives other sellers into the same territory, which has been established as a site to purchase narcotics." The handful of arrests, she says, "are a drop in an ocean."
ACLU of Washington drug-policy director Alison Holcomb adds, "Scooping up street-level dealers simply creates job opportunities for younger recruits."
There are other ways to handle open-air drug dealing, including programs that divert arrestees to treatment, warning suspects that they'll be arrested if they don't clean up their act, and a host of social services. (Goodhew, in the prosecutor's office, says that the drug-market sweeps are a piece of that puzzle.) No one realistically expects drug busts to stop—crack is illegal, and people don't want to live in neighborhoods overrun with crack dealers. But the Seattle Times' coverage sounds like the deluded propaganda from the 1980s that suggested that we could eradicate drugs through an ever-escalating drug war.
Why does the Seattle Times routinely hail the enforcement and leave out the rest of the story in its coverage?
"It seems obvious to me that there are other questions to be asked, and King County is rich in expertise in this area," says Daugaard. "One would hope that reporters would avail themselves to those resources."
Two Seattle Times editors, the reporter Sara Jean Green, the SPD, and community groups in Pioneer Square (who had complained about the dealers) did not respond to repeated requests for comment.