Despite 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, nothing much seems to be changing in New York.
In a sometimes heated session, New York’s City Council held a hearing on Feb. 26 to discuss new statistics 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 in New York last year. This arrest count shows a 40 percent drop since 2013, after Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered in 2014 that most of those caught possessing marijuana would get a court summons instead of going to jail. But of those arrested for cannabis in 2017, a full 86 percent were black or Latino. According to 2015 census data, just over 50 percent of the city’s population is black or Latino. Studies show that white people consume cannabis at the same rate as black people, so the disparity cannot be explained by different usage rates.
“The racial disparities have not changed one bit, and arrests are still too common in communities of color,” said Councilman Donovan Richards, chair of the public safety committee, according to the Daily News story on the hearings.
“If the administration is serious about changing this disparity, we’re not seeing it,” Richards said.
The NYPD representative on hand said he was sympathetic to the council’s concerns. “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, according to the Daily News.
This was met with incredulity by some councilmembers. “I refuse to believe that in New York City, a city of eight and a half million [people], 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 statistics 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 cannabis smoking. 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.”
The loophole that cops are using to arrest people after Mayor de Blasio’s 2014 policy change? Cannabis in public view remains an offense that can get you arrested — and suspects are basically coerced into revealing their herb when stopped by police and told to empty their pockets, according to an NYPD internal memo.
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 different story. Arrests for marijuana remain in the thousands every year & are the 4th most common NYPD arrest.”
And PROP stated that this blatant racial disparity in cannabis arrests 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.”
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