Pubdate: Mon, 14 May 2018
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2018 The New York Times Company
Author: Benjamin Mueller


They sit in courtroom pews, almost all of them young black men,
waiting their turn before a New York City judge to face a charge that
no longer exists in some states: possessing marijuana. They tell of
smoking in a housing project hallway, or of being in a car with a
friend who was smoking, or of lighting up a Black & Mild cigar the
police mistake for a blunt.

There are many ways to be arrested on marijuana charges, but one pattern 
has remained true through years of piecemeal policy changes in New York: 
The primary targets are black and Hispanic people.

Across the city, black people were arrested on low-level marijuana
charges at eight times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people over the
past three years, The New York Times found. Hispanic people were
arrested at five times the rate of white people. In Manhattan, the gap
is even starker: Black people there were arrested at 15 times the rate
of white people.

With crime dropping and the Police Department under pressure to
justify the number of low-level arrests it makes, a senior police
official recently testified to lawmakers that there was a simple
reason for the racial imbalance: More residents in predominantly black
and Hispanic neighborhoods were calling to complain about marijuana.

An analysis by The Times found that fact did not fully explain the
racial disparity. Instead, among neighborhoods where people called
about marijuana at the same rate, the police almost always made
arrests at a higher rate in the area with more black residents, The
Times found.

An analysis by The Times found that fact did not fully explain the
racial disparity. Instead, among neighborhoods where people called
about marijuana at the same rate, the police almost always made
arrests at a higher rate in the area with more black residents, The
Times found.

In Brooklyn, officers in the precinct covering Canarsie arrested
people on marijuana possession charges at a rate more than four times
as high as in the precinct that includes Greenpoint, despite residents
calling 311, the city's help line, and 911 to complain about marijuana
at the same rate, police data show. The Canarsie precinct is 85
percent black. The Greenpoint precinct is 4 percent black.

In Queens, the marijuana arrest rate is more than 10 times as high in
the precinct covering Queens Village as it is in precinct that serves
Forest Hills. Both got marijuana complaints at the same rate, but the
Queens Village precinct is just over half black, while the one
covering Forest Hills has a tiny portion of black residents.

And in Manhattan, officers in a precinct covering a stretch of western
Harlem make marijuana arrests at double the rate of their counterparts
in a precinct covering the northern part of the Upper West Side. Both
received complaints at the same rate, but the precinct covering
western Harlem has double the percentage of black residents as the one
that serves the Upper West Side.

The Times's analysis, combined with interviews with defendants facing
marijuana charges, lawyers and police officers, paints a picture of
uneven enforcement. In some neighborhoods, officers expected by their
commanders to be assertive on the streets seize on the smell of
marijuana and stop people who are smoking. In others, people smoke in
public without fear of an officer passing by or stopping them.

Black neighborhoods often contend with more violent crime, and the
police often deploy extra officers there, which can lead to residents
being exposed more to the police.

"More cops in neighborhoods means they're more likely to encounter
somebody smoking," said Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor
who also advised The Times on its marijuana-arrest analysis.

But more officers are historically assigned to black neighborhoods
than would be expected based on crime rates, according to a study by
Professor Fagan. And research has found "there is no good evidence"
that marijuana arrests in New York City are associated with reductions
in serious crime.

Officers who catch someone smoking marijuana are legally able to stop
and search that person and check for open warrants. Some defense
lawyers and criminologists say those searches and warrant checks are
the real impetus for enforcing marijuana laws more heavily in some

The analysis by The Times shows that at least some quality-of-life
arrests have more to do with the Police Department's strategies than
with residents who call for help, undermining one of the arguments the
police have used to defend mass enforcement of minor offenses in an
era of declining serious crime.

The analysis examined how marijuana arrests were related to the
marijuana-complaint rate, race, violent-crime levels, the poverty rate
and homeownership data in each precinct. It also considered the
borough where an arrest took place to account for different policing
practices across the city. The arrests represent cases in which the
most serious charge against someone was low-level marijuana possession.

Government surveys have shown that black and white people use
marijuana at roughly the same rate. Marijuana smoke wafts down streets
all over the city, from the brownstones in upper-middle-class areas of
Manhattan to apartment buildings in working-class neighborhoods in
other boroughs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said in late 2014 that the police would largely
give summonses instead of making arrests for carrying personal
marijuana, and reserve arrests mainly for smoking in public. Since
then, the police have arrested 17,500 people for marijuana possession
on average a year, down from about 26,000 people in 2014, and issued
thousands of additional summonses. Overall, arrests have dropped
sharply from their recent peak of more than 50,000 during some years
under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

About 87 percent of those arrested in recent years have been black or
Hispanic, a proportion that has remained roughly the same for decades,
according to research led by Harry G. Levine, a sociology professor at
Queens College.

"What you have is people smoking weed in the same places in any
neighborhood in the city," said Scott Levy, a special counsel to the
criminal defense practice at the Bronx Defenders, who has studied
marijuana arrests. "It's just those neighborhoods are patrolled very,
very differently. And the people in those neighborhoods are seen very
differently by the police."

Responding to The Times's analysis, the Police Department said pockets
of violent crime - and the heavier deployments that result - push up
marijuana arrests in some neighborhoods. J. Peter Donald, an assistant
commissioner in the department's public information office, also said
more people smoke in public in some neighborhoods than others, driving
up arrests. He said 911 and 311 complaints about marijuana had
increased in recent years.

"N.Y.P.D. police officers enforce the law fairly and evenly, not only
where and when they observe infractions but also in response to
complaints from 911 and 311 calls, tenant associations, community
councils and build-the-block meetings," Mr. Donald said in a statement.

Appearing before the City Council in February, Chief Dermot F. Shea
said, "The remaining arrests that we make now are overlaid exactly in
the parts of the city where we are receiving complaints from the
public." He asked, "What would you have the police do when people are

Police data do show that neighborhoods with many black and Hispanic
residents tend to generate more 311 and 911 complaints about
marijuana. Criminal justice reform advocates said that is not because
more people are smoking marijuana in those areas. Rather, people in
poor neighborhoods call the police because they are less likely to
have a responsive landlord, building superintendent or co-op board
member who can field their complaints.

Rory Lancman, a councilman from Queens who pressed police officials
for the marijuana data at the February hearing, said with the police
still arresting thousands of people for smoking amid a widespread push
for reform, the police "blame it on the communities themselves because
they're the ones calling on us."

The city's 77 precincts, led by commanders with their own enforcement
priorities, show erratic arrest patterns. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn,
for example, the police made more than twice as many marijuana arrests
last year as in 2016, despite receiving roughly the same number of
annual complaints. And in a precinct covering a section of
northwestern Harlem, arrests dropped to 90 last year from almost 700 a
year earlier, even though complaints fell only slightly from one year
to the next.

Criticism of marijuana arrests provided fuel for Mr. de Blasio's
campaign for mayor in 2013, when he won promising to "reverse the
racial impact of low-level marijuana arrests." The next year the new
Brooklyn district attorney, Ken Thompson, defied the Police Department
and said his office would stop prosecuting many low-level marijuana

Yet the disparities remain. Black and Hispanic people are the main
targets of arrests even in mostly white neighborhoods. In the precinct
covering the southern part of the Upper West Side, for example, white
residents outnumber their black and Hispanic neighbors by six to one,
yet seven out of every 10 people charged with marijuana possession in
the last three years are black or Hispanic, state data show. In the
precinct covering Park Slope, Brooklyn, where a fifth of the residents
are black or Hispanic, three-quarters of those arrested on marijuana
charges are black or Hispanic.

The question of how to address those disparities has divided
Democratic politicians in New York. Cynthia Nixon, who is campaigning
for the Democratic nomination for governor against Gov. Andrew M.
Cuomo, has vowed to legalize marijuana and clear people's arrest
records. Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Cuomo have been reluctant to support
the same measures.

In Criminal Court in Brooklyn on a recent Monday, the people waiting
in the crowded pews to be arraigned on marijuana charges were almost
all black men. In interviews, some declined to give their full names
for fear of compounding the consequences of their arrests.

They had missed work or school, sometimes losing hundreds of dollars
in wages, to show up in court - often twice, because paperwork was not
ready the first time. Their cases were all dismissed so long as they
stayed out of trouble for a stretch, an indication of what Scott
Hechinger, a senior staff lawyer and director of policy at Brooklyn
Defender Services, said was the low value the court system places on
such cases.

Eli, 18, said he had been smoking in a housing project hallway because
his parents preferred him to keep it out of the apartment. Greg, 39,
said he had not even been smoking himself, but was sitting in his car
next to his wife, who he said smokes marijuana to relieve the symptoms
of multiple sclerosis.

"They do it because that's the easiest way to arrest you," Greg

Rashawn Nicol, 27, said officers found his female friend holding a lit
blunt on a third-floor stairwell landing in a Brooklyn housing
project. They backed off arresting her once she started crying, he
said, but said they needed to bring their supervisor an arrest because
he had radioed over a noise complaint. "Somebody's got to go down for
this," Mr. Nicol said an officer told him. So they let her go, but
arrested him.

Several people asked why the police hound residents for small-time
infractions like marijuana in more violent neighborhoods, but are slow
to follow up about serious crimes. "The resources they waste for this
are ridiculous," Mr. Nicol said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt