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It's Not Just NYC: Across America, Only Black and Brown People Get Arrested for Pot

The racial ratios of reefer roundups are as bad as New York's—if not worse—in scores of other U.S. cities.

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“Police departments deploy most patrol and narcotics police to certain neighborhoods, usually designated ‘high crime,’” they wrote. “These are disproportionately low-income, and disproportionately African-American and Latino neighborhoods. It is in these neighborhoods where the police make most patrols, and where they stop and search the most vehicles and individuals.”

Neill Franklin agrees. “If you watch police, they’re not rolling up on people because they’re openly smoking a blunt,” he says; they are more likely to stop groups of three or four youths or men hanging out.

Another factor, he adds, is a police culture in which everyone of a certain ethnic group, subculture, age, or in a certain neighborhood is considered a suspect. In Baltimore, he says, “we don’t police Roland Park the same way we police West Baltimore,” referring to an affluent, mostly white neighborhood and a poor, mostly black one. A 35-year-old black man will get stopped well before a 35-year-old white man, he says, unless the white one looks like a junkie.

That, he says, is both unconstitutional and bad policing. Police who are “serious about their craft,” he explains, know how to profile criminals, to watch for the body language, the behavioral signs, that indicate when someone’s carrying a gun or looking to break into cars. “I can tell within 30 to 45 seconds if someone’s armed,” he adds. Searching large numbers of people instead of patiently observing to see who the real bad guys are, he says, is lazy.

Are massive pot arrests the result of a numbers game, in which police commanders can use statistics to prove that their officers are being productive, or of the “broken-window theory”? Franklin says it's “a bit of both."

Two Cities

New York’s pot-bust policy illustrates that point. Born out of Rudolph Giuliani’s application of the broken-window theory, it has continued under Bloomberg’s mania for metrics. Now, it goes along with two other police efforts: a phenomenal increase in the number of people stopped and frisked, and “Operation Clean Halls,” in which cops arrest people for trespassing if they don’t provide a satisfactory explanation of why they’re in an apartment building. The two police precincts where cops stop the most people—the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York, low-income, overwhelmingly black and Latino areas with a high crime rate—also produce the most pot arrests.

Many, if not most, of the city’s pot busts come from those stops, say lawyers who represent marijuana defendants, and those busts are often based on bogus charges. In New York State, possession of less than 25 grams gets a $100 fine—but smoking or possession “in public view” is a misdemeanor. In many arrests, the only time the marijuana was “in public view” was after the cop found it or the defendant agreed to empty his pockets.

“They’re not saying they’re recovering it from the pocket, they’re saying it’s from the hand,” says Scott Levy, a public defender in the Bronx. Those arrests are not counted in the stop-and-frisk numbers, he explains, because police don’t consider them stops on suspicion. They claim the defendant was “observed committing a crime.”

St. Louis shows an opposite pattern. In the city, the number of pot busts has fallen below 100 in the last two years. In the predominantly white St. Louis County suburbs, they zoomed to more than 5,000 last year.

“I could count on two hands the number [of possession cases] I’ve had from the city,” says Joseph Welch, the lawyer who heads Greater St. Louis NORML— and most of them came when police found weed on someone arrested on another charge. He believes this is because police in the city, which is about half black, have more serious crimes to deal with than pot possession, while in the suburbs, they are more likely to go after petty offenses. Smaller cities and towns can also keep the fines they collect if they prosecute cases in municipal courts instead of turning them over to the states.