To say that Mayor Bill de Blasio is under a lot of pressure to reform policing in New York City would be an understatement. Among the myriad issues and complaints against the NYPD, a recent report shows that New York’s finest has arrested a disproportionate number of minorities for marijuana possession. In response to public uproar, De Blasio announced last week that the NYPD will be making major changes. First and foremost, they will no longer be arresting people for possessing small amounts of weed.
Unequal Policing in New York City
A report on “Marijuana, Fairness and Public Safety” released by the New York District Attorney’s office looks at federal and state-level marijuana policies. It highlights the persistent racial disparities in marijuana arrests in New York City and offers the police some advice.
According to District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., 86 percent of the 16,925 people arrested for marijuana possession were people of color. This breaks down to 38 percent Hispanic and 48 percent African-American. For context, 53 percent of New Yorkers are Black or Hispanic according to a recent census.
City Councilmembers Call Out the NYPD
Back in February, the City Council held a hearing during which they reviewed these statistics and heard from the police. Looking back at New York’s history of racial policing, Councilman Donovan Richards said, “The racial disparities have not changed one bit, and arrests are still too common in communities of color.”
In defense, the NYPD argued that some neighborhoods called in more complaints than others. These led to higher marijuana arrest rates. Councilman Richards responded, “I refuse to believe that in New York City, a city of eight and a half million, that the only individuals calling 911 or 311 on this issue are people in communities in color.”
And he was right, according to new data. The report published by the District Attorney’s office refuted this claim by quantifying 311 calls. The report reads, “Of the five precincts where the most marijuana arrests occurred in 2017, only two were in the top five for the number of marijuana-related calls.” This held true for 2016 as well.
Even communities where people of color are in the minority experienced unequal marijuana policing. For instance, African-American and Hispanic residents account for 16 percent of Forest Hills, Queens’ population. However, 80 percent of people arrested for weed possession in Forest Hills were people of color.
De Blasio Plans Overhaul of New York City Policing
Last week, De Blasio announced the “overhaul and reform” of NYPD’s marijuana policy. He promised the audience at a Center for American Progress Ideas event, “We must and we will end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement.” Changes, he said, are coming in the next thirty days.
Only a few days after his announcement, De Blasio and the District Attorney are already working towards reform. Phil Walzak, the NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, told CNN, “The [NYPD] working group is reviewing possession and public smoking of marijuana to ensure enforcement is consistent with the values of fairness and trust, while also promoting public safety and addressing community concerns.”
According to an aid at City Hall, Mayor De Blasio ordered the NYPD to stop arresting people for smoking marijuana. Instead, the police will be giving out summonses as of this past weekend. Rather than taking people into custody, they will order public marijuana consumers to appear in court. Additionally, “convictions to summons are not listed on a person’s criminal record” per the NY Courts website.
The District Attorney Will No Longer Prosecute For Small Possession Charges
In an official press release, District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced, “Effective August 1st, my Office will decline to prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases.”
The District Attorney’s office views it as a misallocation of criminal justice resources. Additionally, they argue that arresting and prosecuting for marijuana leads to disproportionate policing, which translates to racially biased arrests. “Such arrests can significantly impact job searches, schooling, family members, immigration status, and community involvement,” according to the press release.
The office puts forth that legalization would greatly reduce the number of marijuana-related arrests. They also admit that it wouldn’t end all racial disparities. This holds true when you look at arrest data for Colorado and California post-decriminalization and legalization.
More Changes To Come For The NYPD
De Blasio’s ban on marijuana possession arrests and the District Attorney’s office’s decision not to prosecute for the same offense symbolize a broader move towards tolerance. The galvanizing report on racial disparities and Cynthia Nixon’s campaign to legalize weed are moving current legislators further left when it comes to marijuana.
Permanent changes to NYPD policies won’t be official until the end of the summer. However, this could be the beginning of the end for disparities in marijuana policing.