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Monday, January 21, 2008

SPD Asks Neighbors to Defend Racial Disparity in Enforcement

posted by on January 21 at 15:37 PM

Only 8.4 percent of the Seattle’s population was black in 2000, but 64.2 percent of the people arrested for dealing drugs around that time were black, according to a UW study. Now, a King County prosecutor who works for the Seattle Police Department, Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, has asked four Seattle community groups to help defend the city against charges of racial bias in drug enforcement. She sent each group a letter, one of which was posted yesterday at the Miller Park Neighborhood Association’s blog. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis added).

To refresh your memories, the Public Defender’s Office has filed a motion to dismiss narcotics trafficking charges against several African American individuals who were arrested for selling narcotics in open air drug markets. The Racial Disparity Project is accusing the entire Seattle Police Department of being racist. This is not a claim of individual racism by particular officers, but institutional racism. It is being argued that SPD has created policies that intentionally target African Americans for felony drug offenses.

Since community complaints to SPD is a major issue in this case, I was wondering if you thought members of your group would still be interested in participating in this process and possibly letting the judge know your thoughts about the defense’s representations.

In essence, O’Neill-Stephens is asking neighbors to directly contact the judge to influence the case. But to Sunil Abraham, an attorney for the Defender Association, which filed the suit, “It’s just inappropriate.” He says, “It’s essentially an attempt to get these communities, which have only heard the prosecutor’s description of our case, to put pressure on the judge.”

When I spoke to O’Neill-Stephens, she gave a milder version of the request. She said her intent was to ask neighbors to “go to court to listen. If there’s a forum for them to let their position be known on this they should have the opportunity.” Those neighbors could tell the judge that the SPD is simply responding to their calls for help. The Miller Park blog links to this advice for dealing with drug offenses.

Any time you see street dealing, use, or other illegal activity, report it to 911. Don’t worry if the issue isn’t a life or death situation. When they answer, immediately tell them what kind of crime you’re reporting… all of the crime reports go into a database and can help drive a refocusing of resources to the places they need to be.

I asked O’Neill-Stephens why the disparity exists for arrests of African Americans. “I don’t know,” she says. “The police are responding to community complaints about negative effects of open-air drug markets. Different types of drug traffickers sell drugs in different sorts of ways. Meth users and sellers are primarily white; heroin is primarily Hispanic,” she says. “In my work in the West Precinct there are more African Americans selling crack cocaine in Westlake Mall. I think that’s part of the culture, where street drug traffickers go for their trade. The U-District is more of a white area.”

However, the suit doesn’t claim that the police are intentionally targeting African Americans (or that the SPD is “racist,” as O’Neill-Stephens’ letter claims), Abraham says. Rather, when the Seattle Police Department enforces open-air markets, it is ignoring the open-air markets with white dealers, such as those in the U-District.

According to a report by UW professor Katherine Beckett, drug enforcement from 1999 to 2001 was more harsh for African Americans than for whites. “The main reason blacks are over-represented among arrestees is that the SPD focuses overwhelmingly on the crack cocaine market, as opposed to the heroin, meth, or powder cocaine markets,” she says. (Note: This post originally contained a statistic from Beckett’s report on the likelihood of blacks to be arrested for methamphetamine. Beckett says the statement was based on faulty data and she has since retracted it in favor of the quote above.)

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What a joke. This reminds me of the Chris Rock video "How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police". Step one: OBEY THE LAW.

Posted by obvious | January 21, 2008 3:48 PM

Its hardly a fair justice system if the disproportionate weight of the criminal justice system is applied against one or two minority groups while giving a statistical free pass to the majority of drug users

Posted by vooodooo84 | January 21, 2008 3:54 PM

"Black methamphetamine deliverers are over 31 times more likely than white methamphetamine deliverers to be arrested,"

Anybody can make up statistics to prove a point. Forty percent of the people know that.

Posted by TheMisanthrope | January 21, 2008 4:16 PM

Morons selling drugs in public parks and on street corners are always going to get arrested first, before those master criminals who take elaborate precautions, such as doing it inside a house.

Posted by J.R. | January 21, 2008 4:37 PM

You should ask Andrew Taylor from the Miller Park Neighborhood Assn if he and Lieutenant John Hayes still sit in Starbucks across from Deano's and speed-dial 911.

Posted by DOUG. | January 21, 2008 5:12 PM

At least the feds are having an easier time with convicting drug traffickers:

Posted by seadevi | January 21, 2008 6:14 PM

I suspect that blacks who deal primarily do it in public which exposes them to criminal arrest while whites tend to do it informally indoors with people they know-or a friend of a friend which minimizes the risk of arrest.

As far as the meth dealing goes between the races, I'd like to see the stats between black first time offenders vs. white ones as well as black repeat offenders vs. white repeat offenders. If the black ones are doing harder time than white ones with similar rap sheets, then I believe we can make a strong case for institutional racism.

Posted by neo-realist | January 21, 2008 9:00 PM

Here's betting that Dominic Holden has never actually read Katherine Beckett's study to see how these "statistics" were arrived at. Double or nothing that even if he did, he couldn't tell the difference between unbiased scientific research and a commissioned study to produce an intended result for the Racial Disparity Project.

Posted by come on | January 21, 2008 11:54 PM

What are we betting?

Posted by Dominic Holden | January 22, 2008 12:07 AM

@7 "I suspect that blacks who deal primarily do it in public which exposes them to criminal arrest while whites tend to do it informally indoors with people they know-or a friend of a friend which minimizes the risk of arrest."

To a certain extent this is true. The police are still obligated to enforce laws equally. Just because I commit murder in my home doesn't mean that I shouldn't be pursued with the same vigor as those who do it outdoors.

What it overlooks, however, is that there are also significant numbers of white sellers and purchasers. What the Beckett report and other data show is that SPD focuses on specific types of drugs (crack) in specific neighborhoods (downtown) and specific types of sellers (very low-level street dealers). This results in vastly disproportionate arrest patterns. It may not be intentionally racist, but it clearly violates the equal protection clause.

Oh, and come on @8...I'm betting you're the one that hasn't read it.

Posted by gnossos | January 22, 2008 12:31 AM

This is a quality of life issue for the community it is has nothing to do with race. I've been accosted several times on Madison Street prior to the work the Miller/Madison Community did over the last several years. A crime is a crime and if you flaunt criminal behavior publicly, and without regard for children or other's safety, they should be arrested.

Posted by Ralph Prynne | January 22, 2008 8:36 PM

This post raises concerns about the KC Prosecutors' Office encouraging public input at a judicial hearing.

We might note that the other side in the case (the Public Defenders' Association)
engages in similar activity.

Posted by Andrew Taylor | January 23, 2008 7:08 AM

The cost of making an arrest should be a key factor in the evaluation of the numbers. What percentage of those arrested for drugs were caught dealing in public places (where the cost of surveillance etc are low)? If (IF!) SPD can show a pattern of arresting the least costly-to-arrest criminals first, then it has an alternative, and less disturbing, rationale for the numbers. They are simply trying to do the most with what little resources they have. Ideally, they'd have the resources they need to arrest everyone who needs arresting. If they don't, it's like an easter-egg hunt, and the kid who ignores the eggs on the ground to get the one in the tree will come home w/ a fairly empty basket. Again, I don't know if SPD can support this kind of argument.

Posted by galoob | January 23, 2008 11:16 AM
Posted by hyperlinker | January 23, 2008 12:21 PM


Not only have I read Beckett's study, I have read some of the arguments by the defense. The public defenders are, despite what our Sunil Abraham claims, arguing discriminatory intent, not just disparate impact -- they have to in order to make a claim under the Equal Protection Clause:

Abraham also implies that their goal is to have the police redirect some of their enforcement efforts against white open-air markets, as in the U-District. Bull. I don't know if Abraham is ignorant or dissembling, but the defense's position has been that the police are intentionally discriminating, and their clear policy position has been that all enforcement against open-air drug markets (specifically with buy-busts) should be ended entirely.

It is beyond absurd that someone from a public defender group as politically activist as Seattle's would say that it is inappropriate for a county prosecutor to notify concerned neighbors about court proceedings that may affect them. Keep in mind that she is notifying the neighbors who were similarly accused and harassed at a neighborhood meeting by the Defenders (a part of the post that Holden conveniently doesn't focus on):

"This could also get quite heated. Andrew Taylor and I vividly remember how representatives from the public defender agency accused the residents of the Miller/Madison Community of being racists themselves and promoting gentrification."

Posted by come on | January 25, 2008 12:29 AM

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