Pubdate: Fri, 25 Nov 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company


Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in 2014, has made some progress
in cutting back on the unfair and sometimes illegal police practices
under which thousands of New Yorkers are arrested every year for
possessing trivial amounts of marijuana.

But despite research showing that whites and minority citizens use
marijuana at similar rates, black and Latino New Yorkers are still far
and away more likely to be singled out for low-level arrests that have
little public safety value, but seriously damage their lives.

These petty possession cases are typically dismissed after the person
stays out of trouble for a year. But during the waiting period, people
with otherwise clean records can be denied jobs, housing or entry into
the armed services.

This problem dates back to the 1970s, when affluent parents grew angry
seeing the futures of their college-educated children ruined as a
result of arrests for tiny amounts of marijuana. The New York
Legislature responded to this anger by forbidding police officers from
arresting people for small amounts of marijuana unless the drug was
being smoked or displayed in public.

There were fewer than 1,000 such arrests in 1990. But eventually
police officers began to illegally charge people with public display
of marijuana after forcing them to remove the drug from their
backpacks or pockets. In 2011, an astonishing 50,000 people were
arrested on charges of public possession. The number began to plummet
under Mayor Michael Bloomberg after the city instructed police
officers to obey the state law.

There were just over 26,000 arrests in 2014 - the year Mr. de Blasio
took office and introduced a policy under which people with tiny
amounts of the drug were typically issued the equivalent of a traffic
summons instead of being dragged through the legal system. Last year,
there were about 16,600 such arrests.

But the racial disparity in arrests persists. A new analysis of state
data by the Police Reform Organizing Project found that about 85
percent of those arrested over trivial amounts of marijuana in the
first nine months of this year were black or Latino. It also shows
that marijuana arrests edged up by about 12 percent in the first nine
months of this year, as compared with the same period in 2015.

The Police Department attributes this racial disparity to the fact
that black and Latino people tend to live in higher crime
neighborhoods that are more heavily policed. But criminal defenders
and police reform advocates have a different interpretation. They
argue that, despite department policy, officers are still wrongly
charging people with public possession, and that police officers turn
a blind eye to marijuana use in affluent white areas while bearing
down on it in minority communities.

The city's marijuana enforcement system is more sensible than it was
five years ago. But the Police Department needs to get to the bottom
of the racial disparity in arrests that continues to harm minority
citizens and undermines faith in the fairness of the law.
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