Using Data To Make Sense Of A Racial Disparity In NYC Marijuana Arrests

Photo Credit: Andrew Burton

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 conclusions.

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 smoke.

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.