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NYPD Pot Arrests Habit Proves Tough to Break

Jennifer Carnig,
New York Civil Liberties Union
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December 8, 2011

The NYPD has a pot problem. For more than a decade, its officers have made a massive habit of unlawfully arresting New Yorkers for carrying small amounts of marijuana in their pockets or bags. It’s proving to be a tough habit to break, despite NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s recent acknowledgment of the problem.

NYPD officers make more arrests for pot possession, than for any other charge — 100,000 arrests in the last two years alone. More than 350,000 people — overwhelmingly black and Latino — have been wrongfully arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession in the city since 2002. These arrests can carry grave consequences — costing people employment opportunities, public housing benefits and disrupting their educations.

The arrests occur despite the fact that possessing a small amount of marijuana is not a crime in New York unless it is in public view. If you’re caught with some pot in your pocket, you can be ticketed, but not arrested. The cops get around the law by ordering, tricking or forcing people into exposing their pot and then arresting them for having marijuana in open sight.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, along with the ACLU, advocated against this end run around the law. We applauded this September when Commissioner Kelly ordered his officers to end the practice.

In the months since Kelly’ directive, marijuana arrests have declined 13 percent. Our reaction to this news is twofold: First, it serves as Exhibit A that the NYPD was illegally arresting New Yorkers for minor amounts of marijuana. Second, while it’s good to see the arrest numbers decline, 13 percent isn’t nearly enough of a drop. Clearly, the NYPD needs to commit more resources to training and monitoring officers to finally end the marijuana-arrest crusade.

Even if the 13 percent dip remained constant for a calendar year, it would only equate to a reduction of about 5,000 marijuana arrests, meaning cops would still make an astounding 45,000 low-level marijuana arrests annually — keeping New York the marijuana arrest capital of the world. This just won’t do.

The focus on low-level pot arrests undermines Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative, a worthy program intended to provide opportunities for young men of color. The mayor deserves credit for recognizing the obstacles many black and Latino young men face, but he ignores the fact that many of the challenges his initiative seeks to address are exacerbated — if not caused — by his own administration’s policing policies.

It is very possible that the driving force of the marijuana arrest phenomenon remains in full force: Pressure from arrest quotas and overly aggressive “Broken Windows” policing that targets young people of color for petty offenses like graffiti, disorderly conduct, and — you guessed it — minor marijuana possession.

In fact, in late-October Commissioner Kelly issued an operations order that appeared to establish a formal quota system for arrests, summonses and street stops. It’s easy to imagine the average patrol officer interpreting the order as license to keep busting young people for minor marijuana possession.

It’s too early to judge whether the 13 percent drop will be sustained, or if it is just a blip before the numbers surge again. But the marijuana arrest habit is so deeply ingrained, that it’s unlikely that a single policy directive, without additional training or changes in supervision, will force long-term change.

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