Seattlecrime.com has learned that this week—possibly later today—Mayor Mike McGinn's office will release a statement refuting a recent story by The Stranger that asserts that Seattle police are aggressively going after marijuana users, making more pot arrests than ever.
The Stranger's piece, Pot Paradox—published the week of Hempfest—claims that between January and June of this year, pot arrests doubled when compared to the same period last year:
Between January 1 and June 30, Seattle police have arrested 172 people for marijuana possession, according to records obtained from the Seattle City Attorney's Office. While that's not a lot compared to, say, New York City, that's far more than double the rate of arrests at the midpoint of last year[.]
The piece also claims data from the City Attorney's office indicates "the number of people arrested just for pot...is astronomically higher now" and that "this year, 147 people have been referred to prosecutors with pot as the only charge."
The article certainly contains some startling facts and figures. But upon closer inspection, things might not be as bad for Seattle pot smokers as The Stranger would have you believe.
We’re not yet done picking apart the data used in The Stranger’s piece, but we’ve already found a few key facts that don’t add up.
For starters, it appears The Stranger misinterpreted some of the data provided by police and city prosecutors.
It doesn't take much provocation for police to make an arrest, according to SPD records. In one case, according to SPD documents obtained by The Stranger in July, an officer spotted a car driving "erratically." When stopped, the driver told officers that the "passenger was having a seizure." Medics who arrived to treat the patient "located marijuana in his jeans pocket." Officers seized the marijuana as evidence and referred the man—the man who was having a seizure—to be prosecuted for misdemeanor pot possession.
While police provided the Stranger with information about this incident as part of a public disclosure request on pot arrests, SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says no arrest was actually made in this case.
This same document, which includes information on this so-called "arrest," also clearly lists several incidents where police let pot smokers and dealers go. In one such incident, police caught two men with 17 baggies of pot in a Seattle park, but let them go after they handed over their dope.
Now, as far as arrests go, the term "arrest" is actually pretty broad. Police consider any detainment of a person for investigation of a crime as an arrest. That means police may pat down, and possibly handcuffing a person, but that doesn't mean officers took them to jail, snapped a mug shot, and left the person in a cell for hours. According to records from the city attorney, only 15 people were booked into jail for marijuana in the first six months of this year.
In addition to these finer-and-kinda-down-a-rabbit-hole points, there's also some question about the legitimacy of the numbers of arrests and prosecutions presented in the Stranger's piece, which asserts that more pot cases are being referred for prosecution than ever before.
While it's true that more cases are being referred, what The Stranger doesn't say is that SPD recently moved to a new computer reporting system which effectively automates case referrals, with the exception of domestic violence and assault cases, which are investigated and referred by detectives.
That means that if police contact you for a warrant, you get picked up on a warrant, or stopped for DUI, or jaywalking and end up patting you down and find pot, you'll be arrested for DUI, but police will automatically refer over a charge for pot, which City Attorney Pete Holmes has said he won't prosecute. Data from Holmes’ office appears to indicate prosecutors only filed one pot case.
We've obtained the same records from the City Attorney's office and Seattle Police Department, which The Stranger used for their piece, and are making it available for you to see for yourself.
We're still going over the numbers ourselves (more on that soon), but we have found a large discrepancy in the number of cases—both in arrests and incidents where officers found pot on someone—listed in police records (80) compared to the number of cases supposedly referred to prosecutors (175).
We’ve put in a call the city attorney’s office, and are waiting the mayor's office to release their statement, and still have some digging to do in the documents we've received, but we'll update as this develops.
Ultimately, the big question is whether pot really is the lowest law enforcement priority for SPD.
According to Mayor Mike McGinn's spokesman, Aaron Pickus, it is.
"It's a simple question: Are pot arrests the lowest enforcement priority for SPD?," Pickus says. "Yes they are, and that's reflected in the data [provided to The Stranger]."