1 Million Hours on Pot Arrests? How Quotas and Illegal Stops Waste NYPD Resources

Human Rights

In the past 11 years, the NYPD spent more than one million hours making more than 400,000 arrests for low-level marijuana possession, a new report has found. The report raises questions about the use of police resources, which could likely be better spent addressing serious crimes in the high-crime neighborhoods where many marijuana arrests occur.

Harry Levine, a professor of sociology at Queens College and an expert on marijuana arrests, compiled the report at the request of members of the New York City Council and the New York State legislature. He used past research which found that a single police officer spends a minimum of 2-3 hours -- and upward of 4-5 hours in some cases -- on each of the hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests conducted annually by the NYPD.

Multiplying a "very low and conservative estimate” of 2.5 hours by the number of marijuana arrests from 2002 through 2012 (439,056), the report calculated 1,097,640 NYPD hours spent on marijuana arrests. Levine noted that this is "the equivalent of having 31 police officers working eight hours a day, 365 days a year, for 11 years, making only marijuana possession arrests.” The figure does not include time spent looking for suspects, nor time spent by supervising officer, corrections, court, and prosecutor staff.

As the report notes, “Even at the minimum of one million police officer hours for the 440,000 arrests, it is clear that the marijuana arrests have taken police off the street and away from other crimeâ€�fighting activities for a significant amount of time.”

The vast majority -- almost 90 percent -- of those arrested were black and Latino youths, some of whom may have been illegally charged. Past research by Levine linked the NYPD’s high rate of misdemeanor marijuana arrests to the NYPD’s widely criticized stop-and-frisk tactic, which also targets youths of color in “high-crime” areas. It is telling that, after calls for stop-and-frisk reform escalated in 2011 and resulted in a 22 percent decrease in stop-and-frisks in 2012, marijuana arrests that year also dropped by 22 percent.

Weed in "public view” is a more serious, and arrestable crime, than a small amount of concealed weed, but the arrestable charge may save police the trouble of admitting they obtained it during an illegal search. Reports have found that many stop-and-frisk forms, called UF-250s, although mandatory, go unfiled. Driving both illegal stop-and-frisks and illegal arrests are strictly enforced quotas for police activity like stops and arrests.

The NYPD has increased stops from 200,000 in 2002 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg first took office, to well-over half a million stops annually. Widespread reports that the anti-gun tactic regularly leads to illegal searches have culminated in a class-action lawsuit, Floyd v the City of New York, which began trial this week. The plaintiffs allege that police regularly violate the 4th and 14th Amendment rights of young black and Latino New Yorkers who are stopped without reasonable suspicion, and searched illegally. Cops may only stop a suspect if they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and can only conduct a pat-down if they observe a “bulge” that could be a weapon.

Harlem resident Nicholas Peart, 24, said during his testimony on Tuesday that an officer not only searched his pockets without permission, but also removed his shoes and patted down his socks during an April 2011 stop-and-frisk while he was on his way to the store for milk. He also alleges that an officer asked if he had weed on him.

Peart is a community activist who has been caring for his three siblings, one of whom is disabled, since his mother's death a year ago. He told the court that the NYPD’s low-level policing strategy, though targeted in high-crime areas, feels more like degradation than service for the residents of targeted communities. He broke down in court when he described his encounters with police, saying they made him feel “embarrassed” and “criminalized," and that police officers had touched his groin during a separate August 2007 stop.

Also testifying was NYPD whistleblower and current officer Adhyl Polanco. Polanco said during testimony Tuesday that, as a four-year police veteran in 2009, NYPD supervisors and other higher-ups at the 41st Precinct where he worked demanded 20 arrests and one summons per month, and stressed that they valued quantity over quality. Referencing police responses to domestic abuse and other serious police work, he said “They don’t care about that.” The only things his superiors care about, he said, are “arrests, summonses, and stops.” As Polanco said, “those are the easy part of the job.”

Polanco said that failure to meet quotas could result in serious consequences, including loss of overtime and vacation days, as well as mandatory drives with supervisors. “They can make your life miserable,” he said, shedding light on the motivation of officers to illegally search, and charge, youths with low-level drug possession. Polanco said he was never asked if a stop-and-frisk was based on reasonable suspicion, or if a summons was based on probable cause. Polanco testified that even union delegates pressured officers to meet quotas that are illegal under NY labor law.

“I spoke to the CO [commanding officer] for about an hour-and-a-half,” the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association delegate says in an audio recording captured by Polanco in 2009 and exclusively reported by the Nation Tuesday. “Twenty [arrests] and one [summons]. Twenty and one is what the union is backing up…. They spoke to the [Union] trustees. And that’s what they want, they want twenty and one.”

The trial is expected to last four to six weeks, and if Judge Shira Scheindlin decides to mandate stop-and-frisk reform at the trial’s close, oversight could provide some relief for unjust marijuana arrests. Still, others, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, are calling for the decriminalization of marijuana in public view to stop the criminalization of youths of color.

“We cannot afford to continue arresting tens of thousands of youth every year for low-level marijuana possession,” Alfredo Carrasquillo, civil rights organizer with VOCAL-NY, said in a press release, “We can't afford it in terms of the negative effect it has on the future prospects of our youth and we can't afford in terms of police hours. It's shocking that the same mayor who has been taking money away from youth programs and cutting other social services, is wasting tens of millions of dollars locking youth up through the NYPD's marijuana arrests crusade. We need legislative action to fix this madness."

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