NYPD under fire over continuing racial disparity in cannabis busts

Posted on February 28th, 2018 by Global Ganja Report and tagged , , , , .

New York CityDespite repeated pledges by the New York Police Department and Mayor Bill de Blasio to lift the police pressure on cannabis, and especially to address the long-standing racial disparity in pot busts, all too little seems to be changing in Gotham. In a sometimes heated session, New York's City Council held hearings Feb. 26 to discuss new stats showing that despite a significant drop in cannabis arrests, the overwhelming majority of those busted remain Black and Latino.

There were about 17,500 cannabis possession arrests last year—a 40% drop since 2013, after Mayor de Blasio ordered most of those caught with pot in their possession to get a summons instead of going to jail. But of those arrested for cannabis in 2017, a full 86% were Black or Latino.

"The racial disparities have not changed one bit, and arrests are still too common in communities of color," Councilman Donovan Richards, chair of the public safety committee, was quoted in the Daily News story on the hearings. "If the administration is serious about changing this disparity, we’re not seeing it."

The NYPD rep on hand first made sympathetic noises. "Clearly that's troubling, and it should be troubling to anyone, including me," said Dermot Shea, the Department's chief of crime control strategies.

But Shea quickly tried to portray objective policing, saying cops are just responding to 911 and 311 calls about public pot smoking.  "Where the arrests are made, I believe, are where the complaints are," Shea said.

This was met with incredulity by some councilmembers. "I refuse to believe that in New York City, a city of 8 and a half million, that the only individuals calling 911 or 311 on this issue are people in communities of color," said Richards, a Queens Democrat. "You can walk around City Hall these days, and walk through the park and you will smell marijuana being burned."

Indeed, when the Daily News crunched the numbers in a follow-up story, they found that Shea's claim didn't add up. According to the NYPD's own stats handed over after the hearing, of the five neighborhoods with the most cannabis arrests in 2016, only one ranked in the top five for 911 complaints about public toking. In 2017, two of the top five neighborhoods for cannabis arrests were also in the top five for 911 calls—but the remaining three were not.

Public defenders also questioned Shea's portrayal at the hearing, WNYC Radio reported. "I've represented hundreds of people accused of marijuana possession, and I cannot recall ever seeing any indication that even one was prompted by a 911 complaint," said Catherine Gonzalez, a staff attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services. "NYPD's racially biased marijuana arrests are a matter of policy choice and the city should not defend this practice, but end it."

New York City, despite its liberal reputation, has long been the cannabis arrest capital of the USA. Big Apple tokers exhaled a sigh of relief in November 2014, when Mayor de Blasio instated a new policy barring arrest for possession of under 25 grams of cannabis. But while annual arrests have dropped since then, the numbers still remain high.

The loophole that cops are using? Cannabis in public view remains an offense that can get you arrested—and suspects are basically forced into pulling out their stashes when stopped by cops and ordered to empty their pockets.

Efforts in New York's statehouse to overhaul the cannabis laws, and specifically to address the apparent racist policing, have won the support of the City Council—but have yet to win approval from a necessary majority in the state Assembly.

In a statement last November analyzing the problem, the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), an advocacy group based in the city, wrote: "While Mayor de Blasio has made widely publicized pronouncements about ending punitive sanctions for marijuana infractions, the data presented by his own police department belie those claims & tell a very a different story. Arrests for marijuana remain in the thousands every year & are the 4th most common NYPD arrest."

And PROP stated that the dramatic racial disparity in who gets popped continues despite the fact that "research and experience demonstrate that white people use and sell marijuana in proportions and numbers equal to or greater than African-Americans & Latinos."

The media splash around the City Council hearings should give further impetus to PROP and other activist groups to turn up the heat—both on the NYPD and lawmakers in Albany to finally and meaningfully address the problem of racially biased cannabis policing.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now.



Who's new

  • Baba Israel
  • Karr Young
  • John Veit
  • YosephLeib
  • Peter Gorman