Seattle’s police chief questions whether officers should keep issuing pot tickets

SEATTLE -- Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole asked the City Council Monday whether her officers should stop issuing citations to people caught using pot in public.

O’Toole said the $27 tickets often go unpaid and suggested the citations might be more trouble than they’re worth.

"I don’t want to sit here every six months and try to defend a handful of tickets,” O’Toole said to members of the City Council while presenting the department’s Semi-Annual Report on Marijuana Possession.

According to the July 16 report, Seattle police officers issued 85 tickets from July 1, 2014, to December 31, 2014, to people caught “opening or consuming marijuana products in public.”

O’Toole asked members of the council for guidance on how her officers should proceed with the citations, noting that the tickets have created a great deal of controversy.

“The perception is that we’re treating people unfairly because we’ve issued 23 pot citations to African Americas over the last six months,” she said. “So my question is, do we really need to issue pot citations or do we go about this in a different way?”

In July 2014, Seattle police officer Randy Jokela was the subject of national news coverage after it was discovered he had issued nearly 80 percent of the department’s pot citations. Some accused him of unfairly targeting African Americans and the homeless for enforcement.

Jokela was eventually disciplined for writing “snarky” comments on several of the tickets, but the department did not find that he targeted certain groups of people.

“I have no evidence whatsoever to suggest that officers were signaling out any particular race in this enforcement and I think it’s important that we address it head on,” O’Toole said.

Of the 85 citations issued in the last half of 2014, 66% percent of those cited were white, 27% were African American, and 4% were Asian.

The percentage given to African Americans is considered disproportionate given that only 8% of the city’s population is black.

A vast majority of tickets were issued in the downtown corridor, specifically in the areas around Pike Place Market and Westlake Park. The Downtown Seattle Association said in a statement that it supports officers enforcing all laws that are on the books.

“We support the Seattle Police Department’s enforcement of existing laws and that includes Seattle’s new smoking ban in parks, such as Westlake Park, so all people can enjoy a healthy and welcoming environment,” the association wrote in an email.

The new smoking ban in parks relies on warnings instead of citations. Individuals caught smoking in parks are informed of the ordinance, then given information on how to quit smoking if they’re interested.