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Pot Shots: How Marijuana Legalization Tore Apart The Seattle Police Media Unit

Photo SPD Blotter

In March 2012, the Seattle Police Department made an unorthodox hire: Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, a former cops reporter who had worked at The Stranger and was writing a blog,

Spangenthal-Lee was brought on board as a full-time contractor in the media relations department. According to an internal police report obtained by KUOW, that decision infuriated certain members of the rank and file who were convinced Spangenthal-Lee was hacking into their voicemail for scoops.

They demanded that Spangenthal-Lee be criminally investigated. He was, and the hacking suspicion was not substantiated, so he was hired on contract.

And that, according to the report, is when internal strife in the media unit began.

Detective Jeff Kappel, a spokesman in the unit, was opposed to hiring Spangenthal-Lee. He viewed The Stranger as “hostile to the SPD,” according to the report. And when Washington voters approved the legalization of marijuana in November 2012, Kappel clashed with Spangenthal-Lee and their supervisor, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "48138", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201406/Screen_shot_2014-06-14_at_10.38.32_AM.png", "attribution": ""}]]Spangenthal-Lee and Whitcomb approached pot legalization playfully. Spangenthal-Lee wrote a widely circulated Q&A titled, “Marijwhatnow?” And both were involved in handing out bags of Doritos with informational stickers at Hempfest in August. Even in Seattle, where marijuana enforcement had been a low priority for years, these initiatives represented a sharp turn for many officers.

Kappel refused to hand out Doritos. The report explained that he didn't want to assist with “a controversial distribution of snack foods at a pro-marijuana festival” that would have violated his political beliefs.

After Hempfest, Kappel said in the complaint, his performance evaluations suffered and he was pressured to transfer out of the unit. Investigators said a “preponderance of the evidence” would suggest that Kappel faced discrimination for his political ideology after Hempfest.

The investigators’ report reads like office politics anywhere – where Kappel saw a hostile environment, colleagues told investigators he was unable “to comprehend sarcasm.” Another told investigators that there was “no special note made of [Kappel’s] objection” to the Hempfest initiative, because he “was opposed to anything that wasn’t traditional.”

But the report also reflects how marijuana legalization has changed policing in Seattle. The police department’s human resources department reviewed the investigation and said an employee’s political views aren’t protected if they interfere with their job.

Interim Chief Harry Bailey reviewed the investigation and found it to be inconclusive.

After the investigation closed, the media unit underwent a shakeup.

Whitcomb, Spangenthal-Lee and Det. Renee Witt remained, but Kappel and Det. Mark Jamieson left the unit, replaced by officers Drew Fowler and Patrick Michaud. Andrew Garber, who covered politics and the state Legislature for the Seattle Times, also joined SPD as a “senior media advisor.” 

Whitcomb told KUOW he could not comment on the investigation. He said in terms of this year’s Hempfest, if SPD is invited, the agency will likely participate in some form.

But he said he doesn’t expect to be handing out Doritos.

Year started with KUOW: 2005