The bad news came in three waves. The first came on July 23, when the Seattle Police Department once again made cringeworthy national headlines, this time for the way cops were issuing tickets to people caught using marijuana in public.
"African Americans Disproportionately Cited for Public Pot Use in Seattle," blared the New York Times. According to a report released that day by SPD researchers, Seattle cops issued 32.9 percent of pot tickets to black people in the first half of 2014, even though black people make up less than 8 percent of the city's population. White people, meanwhile, received only 50 percent of the tickets, even though they make up about 70 percent of the city's population. (Several studies have found white and black people use pot at similar rates.)
This sort of enforcement disparity is not in itself shocking. The US Department of Justice noted "serious concerns about biased policing" at the SPD in a 2011 report, and that was one of the reasons the Feds pushed the city into a federal court settlement in 2012 to reform the police force.
What was surprising was that the SPD researchers' report on the problematic marijuana tickets didn't explain why there had been such a disparate impact on minorities. It merely said that police handed out nearly all of the tickets around Third Avenue downtown, Victor Steinbrueck Park, and Occidental Park. Those parks are places where homeless people tend to congregate, and Third Avenue downtown is lined with bus stops used heavily by people of color.
The second wave of bad news arrived a week later, on July 30. In an internal memo whose existence was first reported by The Stranger, Chief Kathleen O'Toole told her police force that she had discovered nearly 80 percent of all the city's marijuana citations were in fact issued by the same police officer. That news wound up making another round of national headlines.
The fact that this critical information was left out of the SPD researchers' report raised more questions, including: Was the federal court order to clean up the department being undermined by entrenched officers trying to suppress unflattering information?
O'Toole's memo explained that the officer, who records identify as West Precinct bike cop Randy Jokela, wrote 66 of the 83 tickets for smoking marijuana in public between January 1 and June 30, 2014. An internal investigation was quickly launched, Jokela was reassigned to deskwork, and the inevitable public debate over whether he'd acted inappropriately began.
"He's just that proactive of an officer," police union president Ron Smith said on KIRO Radio on August 1. "He works, works, works, works." And, this argument goes, Jokela was just enforcing the law. When voters legalized marijuana possession in Washington State in 2012, they also made pot use in plain view an infraction. The Seattle City Council then made the offense punishable by $27 and additional fees. Smith argued that cops have a duty to write tickets to lawbreakers who use pot in public.
But Officer Jokela wasn't writing ordinary tickets.
Jokela wrote descriptions on the citations that called the state's marijuana-legalization law "silly." On many of the tickets, he added, "Attn Petey Holmes" (an apparent reference to City Attorney Pete Holmes, who backed the "silly" legalization law and the ticket). And there are other concerns with Jokela's citations. City law says that whenever practical, officers are guided to provide a "first warning" to people smoking pot in public. But fewer than 10 percent of Jokela's pot tickets mention giving suspects a warning. Finally, Officer Jokela wrote on one citation that he used a coin toss to decide which of two suspects would pay the fine.
"The comments on these things were totally inappropriate," says Chief O'Toole, explaining why she thought the officer should be investigated. "Police officers need to be impartial with the application of the law."
Lisa Daugaard, the public policy director of the Public Defender Association, also raises issues with the citations. "It is concerning that enforcement appears to be concentrated downtown and not in other neighborhoods where those violating the law are likely to be more affluent and white," she says.
But that was not the end of it, either.
The third stage of bad news sits in the stack of actual tickets written by Officer Jokela. The Stranger, through a public records request, obtained copies of those tickets. I then conducted my own analysis of Officer Jokela's citations, and having seen every one of the tickets, it seems highly unlikely that the SPD researchers, Loren Atherley and Mark Baird, could have failed to realize that one cop wrote most of them. Officer Jokela's name is on each citation. They also feature unmistakable large block letters saying "ATTN PETEY HOLMES," contain numerous references to "primo" weed, and describe numerous instances of approaching people in Victor Steinbrueck Park. My analysis shows that Officer Jokela wrote 67 out of the 85 marijuana tickets between January 1 and June 30, 2014 (it's unclear why the O'Toole-released count put him at a slightly different 66 of 83 marijuana tickets for the same period). My analysis also shows that Officer Jokela's tickets exhibit a slightly more pronounced racial disproportionality than the tickets written by other officers (Jokela gave 54 percent of his tickets to people of color, according to the records, while other cops collectively gave 45 percent of their tickets to people of color).
Atherley and Baird declined to comment for this story, so their version of events remains unknown. O'Toole says that when Atherley and SPD chief of staff Mike Washburn met with her in her office, in July, to ask her to sign off on the report, "there was no mention of one individual or any particular anomalies in the research."
"I see this as relevant information that should have been reported since it is obviously of prime importance," says Council Member Nick Licata, who sponsored legislation creating the ticket and requiring the report.
Beyond that, this mystery goes straight to the core of the police department's troubles: How well is reform proceeding if something like this can happen? Are mid-level staff hiding damaging information from the chief? And can she prevent it from happening again?
O'Toole says she didn't hear about the problems until six days after the SPD transmitted the report to the city council. "It was after work hours, and three people on my staff called and said there are some significant concerns about this report," O'Toole recalls. She says she heard the news from SPD chief operating officer Mike Wagers, the SPD's Virginia Gleason, and Sergeant Sean Whitcomb. "They said, 'Did you know 80 percent were written by one officer?' I said, 'I didn't know that.' That was first I learned." O'Toole then made the decision to share the news publicly.
Why did it take whistleblowers to bring this to the chief's attention, instead of the researchers who were paid to report this sort of thing? Did someone in the chain of command try to suppress the information?
"I always have concerns if someone suspects there could be a potential cover-up, but I can't jump to conclusions at this point," O'Toole says. She says this investigation extends beyond Officer Jokela. "We have to figure out who was involved and the chronology of it all," she said, adding that "researchers, supervisors, and command staff will be questioned to determine who knew what when—and what they did about it."
But O'Toole and others aren't waiting to make changes. "Going forward, this report will be compiled by someone completely independent of the SPD," O'Toole says. "I will guarantee you that." Which is good. The report was supposed to be conducted by Katherine Becket, a social scientist at UW who had a draft contract to do this report—until that contract was scotched in January by interim police chief Harry Bailey and the new mayoral administration.
Council Member Licata also notes that officers should be providing warnings before issuing pot tickets (only 8 of the 85 citations mention warnings). "I would expect the police chief to inform her command staff to let their officers know what is expected of them," Licata says. Daugaard reminds that cops need to enforce public pot rules equally, not just in places with high populations of people of color and poor people. "It will be important that the same approach is taken in Green Lake, the University District, and Capitol Hill as is applied downtown," she says.
The other outstanding question: Will the city quash these tickets, given that they're tarnished with one officer's political overtones, were given disproportionately to people of color, and mostly were handed out without a record of a first warning? That decision is up to City Attorney Holmes. He did not respond to questions by press time.