African-Americans make up only 8% of Seattle's population and only 6-7% of the city's drug-using population, but account for 57% of adult drug arrests. Seattle police arrest around 4,000 people on drug charges each year. Those are among the findings of a Harvard University School of Government study of 1999 drug arrests. The study, "A Window of Opportunity: Addressing the Complexities of the Relationship Between Drug Enforcement and Racial Disparity in Seattle," was conducted over a six-month period and was a comprehensive review of drug use and policing patterns in Seattle.
Commissioned by the Defenders Association, the largest grouping of public defenders in Seattle, the study pointed toward two key reasons for the racial disparity, both involving police tactics. First, the study said, police devote more resources to cracking down on low-level open-air drug markets, notably around Pike Place Market, than to outlying neighborhoods. Second, police have relied on "buy and bust" arrests that target sellers rather than the predominantly white drug buyers.
From 1997 to 1999, 83% of heroin overdoses occurred among whites, and drug treatment providers told the study's authors that a majority of Seattle heroin users were white, yet in 1999, blacks accounted for 54% of all heroin arrests.
"It's white guys in their 30s who are dying, but it's black guys who are going to jail," one drug treatment provider told the researchers.
The study's findings were not news to the Defenders Association's Lisa Daugaard. "It was no surprise in that it reflects our daily experience in whom we are assigned to represent in drug cases," she told DRCNet. "It is clear to us that the crushing majority of clients we defend, particularly in cocaine cases, are African-American. The report is not surprising, but it is helpful because it takes us to a new level of understanding."
It also takes the Defenders Association into an odd-bedfellows alliance with Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, who joined the Association's head, Bob Boruchowitz, at a press conference to discuss the report.
"This cries out for attention and creative responses," Boruchowitz said. "That's what the chief being here is all about."
The Defenders and Kerlikowske found common ground in calling for increased spending on drug treatment and prevention programs. They also agreed that King County's Drug Court program should be expanded to include non-prison, non-treatment sentencing alternatives. And the Defenders joined the chief in asking for more funds for more beat officers.
The Defenders may not be as enthusiastic about the chief's proposed remedy for the disparity in drug arrests. Kerikowske told the press conference he would support "reverse-buy" sting operations where police officers pose as drug dealers, then arrest their customers. That would increase the percentage of whites arrested, he said.
Kerikowske defended the department's concentration on downtown drug markets by playing the reverse race card. "There's no greater form of racism than not going into an area because it might be perceived of as racially insensitive," he spun.
"The department will admit there is a great deal of drug activity going on outside downtown, but they're concentrating on the open-air drug markets because of quality of life concerns," Daugaard told DRCNet. "The problem is their "buy and bust" strategy has not been very effective. The study has been good because it resonates with law enforcement officials, it reflects their feelings of futility that they have about there only being a law enforcement approach to the problem. They know they're not fundamentally changing peoples' lives or the extent of the problem," said Daugaard.
Daugaard said the study could provide an opening for a discussion of decriminalization of some drugs and drug offenses. In fact, one of the study's recommendations explicitly calls for a dialogue on decriminalization, noting that "many interviewees" told researchers the social, economic, and medical effects of decriminalization need to be carefully considered.
But, Daugaard warned, decriminalization of marijuana alone could lead to worse racial disparities. "It's not primarily about marijuana arrests," she said. "If you merely decriminalize marijuana, that would not move in the direction of decreasing racial disparity and might well exacerbate it." Warming up on a topic that clearly irritates her, Daugaard added, "Some of the received wisdom of the drug reform movement needs to be reexamined. If the only thing we're doing is making it safe for white drug users than we only exacerbate the crushing burdens of race and class in this society. A lot of the momentum in drug policy reform centers on separating out marijuana and separating out use, but that still stigmatizes users of other drugs and drug sellers. And at the street level, the distinction between users and sellers is a false one."
(The Harvard study is available at http://www.defender.org/jfkschool.pdf online.)