An analysis of police arrest data in Albany, New York shows that racial disparity in the enforcement of marijuana laws in Albany continues, despite assurances from the city’s police chief that the issue would be investigated following a report from a civil rights group last year.
In April 2019, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) released a report on the enforcement of cannabis laws that showed that Black people were far more likely than white people to be arrested for a marijuana violation in Albany. The disparity was documented despite strong evidence that the two groups use marijuana at approximately the same rates nationwide.
At that time, Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins, who is Black, said that the city’s police did not target the Black community and that the disparity in arrests would be investigated. However, an analysis of police data by the Albany Times Union found that between July 9, 2019 and the same date this year, 97% of those arrested or cited for a marijuana offense in the city were Black.
During that time, Albany police issued citations or made arrests for 134 marijuana offenses, the majority of which were civil violations or low-level misdemeanors, including 76 citations for marijuana possession. Only four of those charged with a marijuana offense during the time period were white.
After the NYCLU report was released last year, the Albany branch of the NAACP met with police representatives to discuss the racial disparity. With no change evident a year later, Debora Brown-Johnson, the branch’s president, said last week that it’s time Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan took a look into the matter.
“Questions still exist, what’s going on here, is this a targeted group?” she said.
“It can’t be that it’s just us. We know that doesn’t make sense. It’s one thing for people to say they experienced it but … here’s the data that shows what’s happening,” Brown-Johnson added. “It doesn’t make sense at the end of the day and so because this is an issue in the city, it’s incumbent on the mayor to take a deeper dive herself and take a look and see what changes can be made to address it.”
Police Chief Promises Investigation
In an interview, Hawkins restated his intention to look into the racial disparity, adding that the department’s investigation has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The chief also said that his officers are not on patrol actively looking for marijuana violations.
“We’re not stopping young men in the community and writing them minor possession of marijuana tickets, it’s just not happening,” he said. “I’m not seeing that these young men are being targeted but it’s concerning to me that they are the ones who are impacted by this.”
Hawkins said that investigations into violent crimes and quality-of-life violations including reports of drug sales led to many of the marijuana charges.
“It’s always concerning when you see that all of the arrests were black males,” said Hawkins. “It’s not surprising to me that when we’re concentrating on addressing violent crime … we’re going to pull in some marijuana-related issues.”
In a statement, the mayor said that the city would review the marijuana arrest data as part of a larger law enforcement review ordered statewide by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May.
“The city of Albany Police Reform Collaborative will be undertaking a comprehensive review of the Albany Police Department data associated with arrests by race, gender, and other demographics, and we look forward to having a robust community discussion around these statistics,” Sheehan said.
Following the killing of Floyd, social worker Douglas Roest-Gyimah started a petition asking Sheehan to stop the enforcement of marijuana laws in Albany and acknowledge the racial bias. The petition also calls on the mayor to develop a plan to address the issue, noting that after only weeks of complaints about illegal fireworks earlier this year, the city issued a three-part plan to combat the problem. The petition also gives Sheehan credit for banning the police use of chokeholds and for removing the statue of a colonial New York slave owner and Revolutionary War general from in front of city hall.
“However, we believe neither of these gestures do much of anything at all to create meaningful, long-lasting change,” Roest-Gyimah wrote. ”We write you to ask that you respond to this ongoing humanitarian crisis with equal enthusiasm and vigor as you did with the fireworks.”