A recent flurry of news articles, campaign statements and press conferences has centered attention, once again, on the question of racial disparities in policing in New York City, in particular regarding arrests for smoking marijuana. The district attorneys of Brooklyn and Manhattan have sworn to stop prosecuting most pot busts, and Mayor de Blasio has suddenly ordered the NYPD to come up with a plan to end “unnecessary” arrests for smoking and possessing pot.
The new push reflects outrage that marijuana arrests appear to be driven by race. City Councilman Donovan Richards, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, announced that the whole conversation about pot arrests is “to end the racist policy of targeting primarily black and Latino people.”
And it is certainly true that 86% of the people arrested for weed are black or Latino, though they comprise only 51.4% of the total population of New Yorkers and, according to most research, use the drug at roughly the same rates as whites, though with different patterns of usage.
But to categorize these arrests as overt evidence of societal racism — or as Al Sharpton said Tuesday at City Hall, “the criminalization of blacks” — is to miss the larger context of crime and policing in the city.
Marijuana arrest rates aren’t especially unusual when you look at the communities they take place in. Asked to explain the basis on which marijuana enforcement is carried out across New York, the NYPD insists that it takes a reactive posture: Arrests are driven by community complaint. In a hearing in February, Chief Dermot Shea made the point that a combination of 311 and 911 calls, as well as concerns made at community meetings or to community affairs officers, are the primary considerations in collaring pot smokers.
At a press conference Tuesday, Council Speaker Corey Johnson brandished a number of maps comparing complaint data (based on calls) and arrests for marijuana. Johnson insisted the data “shows the enormous disparity that exists, precinct by precinct, neighborhood by neighborhood,” and that “the numbers don’t add up.”
But the data doesn’t really say what the advocates want it to. By and large, complaints do track arrests, and where they don’t, race is not a primary factor.
It is true that different precincts show different levels of marijuana-specific complaints and arrests. Some areas with a high concentration of pot complaints and arrests — central Brooklyn, Harlem, Washington Heights, the South Bronx — are primarily black and Latino. These neighborhoods have relatively high crime, so it is plausible that the police could just be trolling for pot smoke and making pretextual arrests.
But other neighborhoods, like Astoria, Queens, and Chinatown, have similarly high rates of complaints and arrests for marijuana, but are largely white and Asian; Astoria has one of the lowest rates of serious crime in the city.
Similarly, the 105th Precinct in eastern Queens, which is mostly black, is not a high-crime area, though it too has a large number of marijuana complaints and arrests. All of these neighborhoods are working-class communities where average citizens — the overwhelming majority of whom indisputably do not smoke marijuana in public — are annoyed by groups of people who gather on stoops or corners or parks to hang out, play music, gamble, drink and smoke pot.
Councilman Fernando Cabrera, at the February hearing, struck a contrarian note, saying, “people in my community, when they call 311 or 911, want a response . . they are disturbed when they go outside and people are smoking pot.” Cabrera pointed out that his district is overwhelmingly Latino, so the question of disproportionality isn’t a factor: The complaints aren’t race-based, because everyone is the same race. But the complaints are real.
Advocates for ending pot arrests want to end the “era of mass incarceration,” which has disproportionately impacted minorities. But almost nobody goes to prison just for having or smoking pot. The NYPD arrests almost 20,000 people annually for smoking marijuana, but on an average day there are only four people in jail in New York City for a pot charge, including people serving a jail sentence, or who are being held for parole violations or outstanding warrants.
While 86% of marijuana arrests sounds bad when blacks and Latinos are only 51.4% of the population, the same imbalance exists across the spectrum of criminal activity. Based on victim reports, 84.7% of rape suspects in 2016 were black or Latino, robbery suspects were 93.4% black or Latino, and shooting suspects were 97.6% black or Latino. Are cops really making subjective, discretionary arrests for pot out of racial bias, at a lower rate than the rate of serious crime by racial group?
None of this is to say that pot should not be made legal, or that prosecutors should or should not charge people arrested for it. Those are social choices, and there may be excellent reasons for quasi-legalization. But there is no evidence that current enforcement is based on racial bias.