Civil Liberties

Activists Rally as Brooklyn DA Throws A Wrench in Bratton's Racial "Broken Windows" Policing

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson will no longer prosecute low-level marijuana arrests.

On Friday morning, the Drug Policy Alliance of New York gathered a group of elected officials, public defenders, activists and press in front of Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn. The rally was convened to support Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson’s decision to no longer prosecute low-level marijuana arrests.

New York DPA Director Gabriel Sayegh opened the event by explaining the significance of Thompson's decision. 

“This is a big deal for a few reasons,” he said. “Number one, Brooklyn has more marijuana arrests than any other borough in the city. [And] number two, Brooklyn has amongst the highest racial disparities of these arrests than anywhere else in the country.”

The latest figures from the ACLU corroborate Sayegh’s remarks: 20,000 people in Kings County (Brooklyn) were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, the second highest in the nation. Of those, 61.5 percent were black, and only 7 percent were white. Numerous government studies show that marijuana use is roughly the same across all racial groups.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams also spoke, acknowledging that the NYPD frequently circumvents the law when they arrest for possession. Under a state law passed in 1977, minor pot possession is not a misdemeanor unless it is in public view, yet marijuana arrests soared in subsequent decades because police began forcing people to brandish their stash out in the open.

“If you walk through any community in Brooklyn, you can smell marijuana,” Adams said to the audience. “Yet the only place this was enforced was in the black and brown parts of Brooklyn...this was an action that was not enforced across the entire borough.”

The decision has created a rift between Thompson’s office and the NYPD, which follows an aggressive policy of arresting for minor possession. Assembly Member Walter Mosley said the NYPD should be mindful of its jurisdictional boundaries.

“We don’t tell [Police Commissioner William Bratton] how to police, so he should show respect for how the DA prosecutes,” he said to AlterNet.

Yet that will be a tough sell for Bratton, mastermind of the “broken windows” theory of policing. The idea is that arresting people for low-level offenses, like graffiti, public intoxication and marijuana possession, will prevent more serious crimes on a grander scale. The theory was whipped up by white criminologists in the 80’s and then put into practice by Bratton in the early 90’s, during his first stint as Police Commissioner of the NYPD, and over time his style of “proactive policing” has spread throughout the country.

After leaving the NYPD and serving as Chief of Police for the LAPD, Bratton was brought back to his former post earlier this year. Since then, the city has experienced a spike in arrests for low-level crimes like panhandling and dancing on the subway. And while the overall number of marijuana arrests in New York City has fallen in recent months, thanks to the end of the longstanding “stop and frisk” police policy, the number arrested for minor possession is still drastically higher than it was twenty years ago.

Although Thompson’s decision will have a significant impact on the adult court system, it’s unknown whether it will have any effect on its juvenile counterpart. Lauren Katzman from Legal Aid’s Juvenile Rights Division described to AlterNet how the majority of children she sees charged with possession are young men of color. The white youth, on the other hand, are almost always taken in for more egregious crimes like theft and arson.

Aaron Cantú is an investigator for the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmiguel_