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Priority measurement

In the Slog, writer Dominic Holden writes about numbers and what they indicate, or don’t, about public priorities.

In 2003, Seattle voters passed (59% in favor) a ballot issue declaring marijuana enforcement the lowest priority for city police. In the years since, the number of arrests on pot busts declined, and fr years stayed well below levels from 2003 and earlier.

In “Pot Paradox,” Holden wrote in August about an oddity: Arrests on pot offenses this year have (on a per-month basis) more than doubled. He wrote, “This year, 147 people have been referred to prosecutors with pot as the only charge, according to records from the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the city attorney’s office. That is a fivefold increase in the number of pot-only cases (last year, only 28 of the 120 arrests were referred for prosecution with pot as the only charge). In other words, pot-only arrests rose from 23 percent to 85 percent. This is a drastic shift toward busting people solely for pot.”

Seemingly in response, Seattle Mike McGinn‘s office on September 1 posted a response. It said:

There have been a few questions recently regarding marijuana enforcement in our city. We’ve put together a FAQ to help answer these questions.

1. Is enforcing simple possession of marijuana really SPD’s lowest priority?

Yes. In the first four months of this year about 6,500 incident reports were filed with the City Attorney’s Office. In only six of those incidents was marijuana the reason for the contact. Only .09% of incident reports during this time period cite marijuana as the primary reason for a contact.

2. Do police officers ever stop someone solely because of marijuana?

Yes, but very rarely. Although it may appear that marijuana was the “sole charge” in a lot of incident reports, it often looks that way because the reason for the stop was either a traffic citation (which isn’t a criminal charge), or to execute a warrant. If someone is arrested because of an outstanding warrant, the offense for which the warrant was issued isn’t a new violation, so review of the City Attorney’s records would cause one to conclude (incorrectly) that marijuana was the only criminal violation at issue. …

6. You said the police rarely stop people just for marijuana, and yet the City Attorney is declining all these marijuana charges. Where are these charges coming from?

Most police contacts involving marijuana occur because of an unrelated offense. For example, of the incident reports filed between January 1st and April 30th of this year, there were only eighty that cited possession of marijuana.

The question here, though, remains – what changed that resulted in different numbers this year? Something must have.

McGinn did cite some different, and lower, numbers from those Holden used. And Holden, in a followup piece today, runs through them, acknowledging one error in their use. The whole thing is worth reading as a useful exercise in evaluating data; and trying to figure out what conclusions, if any, should be drawn.

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