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


If you've walked around New York City lately, there's a good chance
you've smelled weed. People smoke walking their dogs in the West
Village, and they smoke in apartment building lobbies in the South
Bronx. They smoke outside bars and restaurants and in the park.

White people largely don't get arrested for it. Black and Hispanic
people do, despite survey after survey saying people of most races
smoke at similar rates.

So after a senior police official recently testified to the City
Council that there was a simple justification - he said more people
call 911 and 311 to complain about marijuana smoke in black and
Hispanic neighborhoods - we decided to dig into the numbers the New
York Police Department gave lawmakers to support that claim.

That set us on a meandering, two-month path as we wrestled with
incomplete police data; called lawyers, police officers, drug reform
advocates and academics; and watched defendants get arraigned on
marijuana charges. We tried to avoid jumping to conclusions before
trying every avenue we could think of.

The Police Department only recently started trying to explain its
marijuana arrests. For years the City Council was more deferential to
top commanders, and police officials fell back on the notion that they
needed to enforce minor crimes to stave off serious disorder.

But crime has fallen to record lows even as the department makes fewer
low-level arrests. The City Council recently chose a more
confrontational speaker. Cynthia Nixon, a high-wattage candidate for
the Democratic nomination for governor, has framed legalizing
marijuana as a racial justice issue, pushing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
closer than he's ever been to considering such a measure. And other
states have stopped arresting people for marijuana.

Suddenly the Police Department was under pressure to justify an arrest
disparity that's existed for decades - and its answer, in the form of
a few pages of spreadsheets, didn't lend itself to quick

The Police Department is organized into 77 precincts, and that's how
it keeps track of crimes, arrests and calls about marijuana. The
problem is that those precincts don't align with neighborhood boundaries.

So Robert Gebeloff, a data journalist at The Times, transposed Census
Bureau information about race, poverty levels and homeownership onto a
precinct map. Then he dropped the police data into four buckets based
on the percentage of a precinct's residents who were black or Hispanic.

What we found roughly aligned with the police explanation. In
precincts that were more heavily black and Hispanic, the rate at which
people called to complain about marijuana was generally higher.

What that meant wasn't so simple: Some experts said it was well known
that police calls tended to be higher in black and Hispanic
neighborhoods. In this case, they said it had more to do with a
paucity of alternative ways of getting help. In a privately owned
Upper East Side apartment, residents can call the building manager if
marijuana smoke is wafting through the windows or air ducts. In public
housing projects in Brooklyn, residents can't get help from building
staff members for major maintenance issues, much less for marijuana

Mr. Gebeloff wanted to check our work. Andrew Beveridge, a sociology
professor at Queens College who often works with The Times, asked
Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia Law School, for his advice.
Professor Fagan suggested we run a different kind of statistical model
that was more commonly used in criminology studies, and also consider
the borough where an arrest took place.

So we ran our analysis again, this time looking at a whole range of
factors that could help us understand marijuana arrests, like the
racial composition, poverty and violent crime rate of precincts. Sahil
Chinoy, a graphics intern at The Times, wrote the code to check
whether the examples we saw in the data were part of a broader,
statistically significant trend.

And they were. What we discovered was that when two precincts had the
same rate of marijuana calls, the one with a higher arrest rate was
almost always home to more black people. The police said that had to
do with violent crime rates being higher in those precincts, which
commanders often react to by deploying more officers.

More scrutiny is in store for the department's low-level arrest
tactics. A recently passed local law requires the police to post data
about the race of people arrested for fare evasion and the subway
stations where they are arrested, but the police have yet to comply.

When it comes to marijuana, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he's still
making up his mind about where he stands on legalization. In the first
three months of this year, 89 percent of the roughly 4,000 people
arrested for marijuana possession in New York City were black or Hispanic.
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MAP posted-by: Matt