Pubdate: Fri, 07 Jun 2013
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2013 The Buffalo News
Author: Lou Michel
Page: D1


Niagara, Chautauqua and Erie Counties Lead Uneven Enforcement in
Western New York

If you are black and stopped by police in Niagara County, you are 7.5
times more likely to be arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession
than if you are white.

If you are black and in Erie County, the likelihood of being charged
is 5.6 times greater than if you are white.

In both counties, that represents a substantial "racial disparity" in
how the law is applied, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union
report released Thursday.

The main target of the report is the New York City Police Department's
controversial "stop and frisk" policy, which is being challenged in
U.S. District Court for alleged unconstitutional stops and racial profiling.

But statewide, young men of color are more likely than their white
counterparts to be charged with misdemeanor pot possession, said NYCLU
Executive Director Donna Lieberman in unveiling the findings.

"It's not just the New York City Police Department that has a
marijuana problem, but police departments all across the state, from
Buffalo to Binghamton. Huge racial disparities exist in counties
throughout the state," Lieberman said. "Statewide, blacks are 4.5
times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana."

Local police officials willing to comment on the study  some did not
return phone calls seeking comment  said marijuana laws are enforced
regardless of race and that high-crime neighborhoods where more police
are assigned may contribute to the high ratio.

To undo the disparity, Lieberman called on the State Senate to move
forward with a bill already approved by the Assembly that would
further decriminalize small amounts of marijuana that inadvertently
become publicly displayed when police stop and frisk individuals or
order suspects to empty their pockets.

Possessing a small amount of pot that is not in public view was
decriminalized by the state in 1977. It dropped to a violation similar
to a traffic summons.

And while blacks downstate in Brooklyn and Manhattan are at least nine
times more likely to be arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession
than whites, Lieberman said blacks across the state are arrested in
greater numbers than whites on the charge, even though there are more
white residents in the state and surveys show young white males use
marijuana more often than young black men.

The ratios, she said, are based on 2010 FBI crime statistics.

In Buffalo, the stop-and-frisk approach is not used by officers,
according to Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda.

He said a number of factors could contribute to blacks being more
likely to be arrested on pot charges.

"I don't know what the numbers are for marijuana arrests in Buffalo or
the racial breakdown, but some of the poorer neighborhoods in the city
are disproportionately minority, and due to economic circumstances in
some of those areas, there are unfortunately higher crime rates, and
that leads to a larger police presence and at times more arrests
across the board, including charges for minor offenses," Derenda said.

Erie County Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman said that while he cannot
address the policies of other police agencies, the Sheriff's Office
never uses race as a factor in enforcing laws.

"We don't use race as a determination or a standard in making an
arrest, including marijuana laws," he said. "A lot of marijuana
arrests do not involve incarceration. The person is given an
appearance ticket. The marijuana is confiscated and properly
destroyed," Wipperman said.

Cheektowaga Police Capt. James J. Speyer offered an assurance that his
department also does not carry out arrests based on race or any
factors other than criminal activity.

In expressing surprise over the ratio, Speyer said that he would want
to review the study before offering an opinion but added, "I'd like to
know what the circumstances were leading up to the charge."

Niagara Falls police and Niagara County sheriff's officials did not
return phone calls seeking their response to the study.

Lieberman said there is another travesty occurring in enforcing pot
possession laws  the amount of public funds spent by the
criminal-justice system.

A study by the NYCLU's parent organization, the American Civil
Liberties Union, estimates that in 2010 a total of $678.5 million in
New York taxpayer money was spent on arrests and court costs to
adjudicate misdemeanor pot charges.

But the greater harm, she said, is the unequal enforcement of the law
along racial lines.

"Arresting and jailing thousands of people for possessing small
amounts of marijuana does not make safer streets. It only needlessly
disrupts people's lives and fosters distrust between the police and
the communities they are sworn to serve," Lieberman said.

Gabriel Sayegh, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in
Manhattan, pointed out that young white men have demonstrated
significantly higher involvement in using and selling marijuana than
young men of color based on surveys conducted over the years.

He also cited a study by Human Rights Watch that analyzed thousands of
marijuana arrests over a number of years and determined that
individuals arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession rarely go on
to commit violent criminal acts.

The highest ratios involving blacks being more likely to be arrested
than whites occurred in counties with large urban centers, but the
study also found that in 61 of the state's 62 counties, blacks were
more likely to face pot possession charges.

"There may be more police in so-called high-crime neighborhoods, but
that doesn't explain to us that in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods,
the disparity of arrests continues," Lieberman said.

Because there is no category in FBI crime reporting forms for
Hispanics arrested for possession of marijuana, those individuals are
included with whites arrested on the pot charge, the NYCLU said. If
Hispanics were not grouped with whites, civil liberties officials
said, the disparity between blacks being arrested more frequently than
whites would be even more imbalanced.

Civil liberties officials called on State Senate leaders Dean Skelos,
a Republican, and Jeffrey Klein, a Democrat, to move the bill forward
decriminalizing public possession of small amounts of marijuana,
adding that smoking pot in public would still remain a crime.
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