Toking while poor
Lacking a sofa indoors, Seattle’s homeless people more likely to get ticketed for smoking
A police officer who wrote almost 80 percent of the tickets issued for smoking marijuana in public has been reassigned by the Seattle Police Department (SPD), after analysis by the department showed nearly half of the tickets written for the civil infraction were given to homeless people and more than a third to black people.
SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole announced in late July that SPD determined 66 of 83 tickets, or 79.5 percent, were written by the same officer. The tickets were issued between January and July of 2014. Some of the tickets contained notes, her statement on the SPD website continues, and several of those notes were addressed to “Petey Holmes,” a reference to City Attorney Pete Holmes.
SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb said the department doesn’t release the names of officers involved in a current OPA investigation, but the Seattle Times and KIRO TV reported the tickets were written by Officer Randy Jokela.
The Seattle Times also reported that in 2005, Jokela was named co-officer of the year for the West Precinct, which encompasses downtown.
In the statement, O’Toole said the “officer’s actions have been reported to the OPA [Office of Professional Accountability],” a civilian-led office within SPD that handles issues of police misconduct. During the OPA investigation, the officer will not perform patrol duties.
The officer’s reassignment came a week after the July 23 release of an SPD analysis called “Public Possession of Legal Marijuana,” which found that in the first six months of 2014 82 tickets were issued for smoking marijuana in public.
Of the citations written, 38 — or 46 percent — were written to people who identified as homeless.
The legal addresses listed with police included homeless and mental-health service providers, transitional and low-income housing units, motels or post office general delivery. One person listed a vacant lot as an address.
“Early observations suggest a correlation between this low level civil infraction and people of disadvantaged socioeconomic means,” the report states.
The analysis continues: “That a person’s economic status would appear to be predictive of receiving a citation for public possession of marijuana has profound implications.”
The 11-page analysis, written by SPD members Loren T. Atherley and Mark Baird, also found that while white people received 50 percent of tickets, black people received almost 37 percent. Of the black people who received tickets, 90 percent were black males.
Data from the 2010 U.S. Census shows that black people comprise 8 percent of Seattle’s population.
“With stops as a basic unit of measurement, outcomes may reveal either implicit or explicit bias in the decision making of the officer,” the report states.
‘Park people’ as targets?
Joseph Rembusch said he feels bias against homeless people played a part in why he received a ticket — written by Officer Jokela — for smoking pot in public.
Rembusch had sat down on July 24 to smoke a bowl with some friends in Occidental Park, and when the pipe came to him he lit it, inhaled and passed it along, he said. When the pipe came around again, he’d planned to put it to his lips.
But Rembusch said an officer on a bicycle, who turned out to be Jokela, was watching.
“All he saw was me holding it,” said Rembusch, who’s homeless and sleeps near the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Jokela wrote Rembusch a $27 ticket.
Rembusch said on one level the ticket is warranted: After all, while it’s legal to possess pot in Washington state, you can’t smoke it outside. Still, he said he felt the officer targeted him because he is homeless.
“I feel like it was because we’re the ‘park people,’” Rembusch said. “I feel like that played a factor in it. But it shouldn’t.”
Decision making and its cost
Most of the people who received citations for public smoking were ticketed in the downtown core, in SPD’s West Precinct. Nearly a third of citations were handed out in Victor Steinbrueck Park. All but one of the 82 tickets were written by officers on bikes, who witnessed the smoking as it took place.
Whitcomb with SPD said that, according to a department directive, officers can give a first warning. The analysis does not reveal how many times officers warned people before writing citations.
Rembusch said he did not receive a warning.
While the fine for tickets can be as much as $50, some were lower. But a lower fee doesn’t mean people will pay them.
Using data from the Municipal Court of Seattle, the analysis shows that of the 82 issued tickets, only five had been paid, while payment for 19 others is still pending. The majority — 53 tickets or 65 percent — were in default.
Rembusch, who keeps his ticket folded up in his backpack, said he can’t afford to pay the $27 fine.
“That doesn’t seem like a lot,” he said. “But that’s a lot of money to me.”
Nowhere else to go
Speaking before the announcement of the officer’s reassignment, City Attorney Holmes said that if future analysis continues to show homeless or black people receive a disproportionate number of tickets, city leaders should take action.
“There may be a need to re-examine the tickets,” he said.
Holmes likened the civil citations for smoking marijuana in public to two other civil charges: drinking or urinating in public.
Last year, SPD issued close to 550 tickets for drinking in public, Holmes said. If someone receives up to three tickets for public drinking or urination and fails to pay the fines or to respond to requests for payment, the person can be charged with failure to respond, a misdemeanor.
He said if someone accrued unpaid civil charges for smoking in public, it could theoretically lead to a failure to respond.
“Different substance, same problem,” he said.
Holmes said that his office doesn’t pursue failure to respond charges that result from public urination or drinking unless an arrest can help someone receive social services or substance abuse treatment. The same approach may be applied to multiple unpaid citations for smoking pot in public, he said.
The citations people received for public consumption of pot and the subsequent analysis are the result of Initiative 502. Passed by state voters in 2012, I-502 made it legal for people 21 or older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. While possession and use in a private residence became legal, the initiative created a civil fine for public use.
Federal regulations prohibit smoking marijuana in public housing units, such as those operated by the Seattle Housing Authority (“We’re not buds,” RC, Jan. 30, 2013).
When the Seattle City Council incorporated that fine into city law, it mandated that SPD track the age, race, sex and address of each person who received a ticket. The recent analysis is the first of four reports, to be issued every six months from 2014 through 2015.
The release of the first six months’ of data led Holmes and City Councilmember Nick Licata to issue a joint statement that said, in part, it appeared a disproportionate number of tickets were issued to people who did not live in private residences.
“This shows the need for places where people can legally consume marijuana in Seattle,” they wrote.
Referring to that joint statement, Holmes said that the city should look into implementing “marijuana lounges” or “cannabis cafes.” Since it’s impossible to say where they might be located, it’s difficult to tell if they’d benefit homeless people, he added.
In the meantime, he said homeless people should use discretion when smoking pot outdoors.
But given Rembusch’s current living situation, discretion isn’t always easy. He said that when he lived in Indiana, he was in a private residence where he could smoke pot. Now that he’s in Seattle and homeless, his options for places to get high are limited.
“This is all we have,” Rembusch said, as he looked around Occidental Square. “If we wanna smoke a bowl, this is where we have to go.”
CommentsLet's focus on ending homelessness, not enabling people to break the law. Anyone smoking pot in public should face the consequences so that our public spaces remain open and safe for all.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.