City SPD Asks Neighbors to Defend Racial Disparity in Enforcement
posted by January 21 at 15:37 PMon
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.)