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Monday, December 01, 2003 - Page updated at 12:05 P.M.
Report alleges racial disparities in Seattle drug arrests
By Florangela Davila
The 78-page report was written by Katherine Beckett, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington, as part of pending litigation against Seattle police.
The report, as well as the civil lawsuit, contends police drug-enforcement tactics target racial minorities, who the report says represent a relatively small percent of those selling drugs in Seattle.
The Police Department maintains its practices are not influenced by race or ethnicity.
Beckett analyzed Seattle police data between January 1999 and April 2001 to determine the race of those arrested for selling heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and Ecstasy: 63 percent were black, 19 percent white and 14 percent Hispanic. Asians, Native Americans and 17 arrests in which race or ethnicity wasn't recorded accounted for the remainder.
Beckett then used various factors to estimate the race of drug dealers. She looked at the racial breakdown of drug users; made observations at two outdoor drug markets downtown and on Capitol Hill; and used data from a Seattle Needle Exchange survey and research that shows users usually buy drugs from people of their own race.
Her conclusion: A majority of dealers are white.
The racial breakdown of drug dealers, Beckett acknowledges, is not based on hard data. But it is statistically reliable, akin to how other types of illegal behavior illegal immigration, for example are determined using related data, she said.
"When you're trying to estimate something that's illicit, it's challenging," Beckett said. "But those challenges aren't insurmountable."
Intravenous drug users were surveyed over two weeks in April 2002 at five needle-exchange sites in Seattle. Respondents were asked their race, the drug used in the needle they were exchanging, whether they had gotten the drug in Seattle and the race of the dealer.
Survey results showed one-half of the dealers were white and 14 percent were black.
"Black heroin deliverers are more than 22 times more likely than white heroin deliverers to be arrested," the report says. "Black methamphetamine deliverers are over 31 times more likely than white methamphetamine deliverers to be arrested."
Stephen Larson, a Seattle attorney representing the police, said he hadn't seen the full report but suggested the methodology and conclusion relied on "an extrapolation."
Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske issued a brief written statement, saying his department had received the report and that the drug arrests had been made based on probable cause that a crime had occurred.
"I am personally dedicated to ensuring that drug dealers are lawfully arrested and held accountable in the courts," he said. "This agency has a well-deserved reputation for professionalism and responsiveness to the community."
A department spokeswoman added that "race was not the determining factor" in the arrests.
The study arrives at a time when just about every facet of law enforcement continues to be scrutinized for racial disparity and racial bias. Looking at data through the prism of race is the only way, some people say, to ensure the criminal-justice system is operating equitably.
In 2000, the Washington state Minority and Justice Commission, prompted by a dramatic rise in the number of racial and ethnic minorities serving prison sentences for drug offenses, looked at how drug cases are processed through the system.
A commission study found no racial bias. But it noted that offenders arrested in undercover buys were more likely than other offenders to be convicted of the most serious drug charges. It recommended further analysis.
In an April 2001 study, researchers at Harvard University looked at whether the drug-arrest rate for minorities in Seattle was linked to drug-enforcement tactics. The study was made at the request of the Racial Disparity Project, an undertaking of the Seattle/King County Public Defender Association.
The Harvard study used Seattle police-precinct data to determine the race of those arrested for drug offenses. It then looked at who was being convicted for heroin and marijuana offenses. It analyzed rates of drug use and abuse among various racial groups based on a state Department of Social and Health Services study.
It noted which areas of the city generated the most citizen complaints to police about drug activity: the West Seattle, Duwamish and Rainier Valley areas. And it relied on additional drug studies as well as more than 30 interviews with treatment providers, judges, prosecutors and Seattle police officers to paint a portrait of the local drug scene.
Researchers concluded that police focused on downtown street sales, which disproportionately involve racial minorities and didn't reflect the entire drug market drug sales on Capitol Hill, for example, or those occurring inside homes and restaurants.
They suggested the department revamp its narcotics-enforcement strategy, including paying more attention to those purchasing the drugs.
Seattle police drug-enforcement tactics have since wound up in court. And so will Beckett's report, which is a first-of-its kind analysis of department arrest data by race, by drug, census tract and police tactic.
The Racial Disparity Project, which commissioned the report, has alleged police drug enforcement targets racial minorities while allowing white dealers to remain a "phantom population" with "defacto immunity from the criminal justice system."
In litigation filed in April 2001, Racial Disparity Project attorneys pointed to the arrests of 19 people, all black or Latino, who were seized as part of individual undercover buys at three locations downtown. Each was arrested for selling cocaine or heroin.
Eighteen criminal cases were consolidated into one by King County Superior Court Judge Richard Jones. One-half of the defendants have since dropped out of the suit, having resolved their cases, but nine defendants remain and have asked the court to dismiss their drug charges.
The police data that Beckett analyzed were secured as part of the discovery process in that suit. Both the police department and the King County Prosecutor's Office had argued the data and portions of the report should not be released to the public. Judge Jones denied their motions last month.
The drug-enforcement case is expected to go to trial early next year. In the meantime, there is no disagreement over the location of the illegal drug market. Both sides say known "hot spots" extend beyond Second and Pike, what many still call "Penney's Corner" because a J.C. Penney store once stood there.
Twenty bucks these days, say those in the know, might get you a bag of meth or a rock of coke at Broadway and John, 50th and University, 23rd and Madison, Third and Bell, Pioneer Square and parts of the Chinatown International District.
Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916.
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