The New York City Police Department currently has in place a system of institutionalized racism which disproportionately targets, on a massive scale, blacks and Latinos for marijuana related crimes. By now well documented, though under-reported, the systematic perpetration of illegal arrests by NYPD officers is widespread. This not only costs the City and state millions of dollars a year (the language of the Legislature) but it is also an affront to the ideals of America. Not be overly optimistic, but is it too much to ask for our nation's leading police force to follow the law and not revert back to Jim Crow-era discriminatory practices? Apparently. There is, however, a growing outcry, and this article is intended to fuel the fire.
It should be stated on the outset that there is already in place a law which decriminalizes the possession of marijuana in small amounts – i.e. 25 grams or less. The Marijuana Reform Act of 1977, which aims at saving the time and money wasted by pursuing small time users, reads:
“The legislature finds that arrests, criminal prosecutions and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marijuana for personal use. Every year, this process needlessly scars thousands of lives and waste millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime.”
Under the current law, established in 1977, anyone caught with 25 grams of pot or less is slapped with a misdemeanor charge and a $100 fine. The clear legislative intent of this law was to reduce the waste of resources being thrown at low level marijuana offenders. But the devil, as always, is in the details.
From 1977 until 1996 there were only 63,000 marijuana possession arrests made in NYC, in accordance with the Marijuana Reform Act. However, beginning with the administration of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and continuing under Michael Bloomberg, NYC has seen 353,000 arrests made between 1997 and 2006 for the same offense.
What accounts for the radical increase? A simple procedural misapplication of the law. This is how it works:
A person possessing 25 grams of pot or less can only be charged with a misdemeanor. The problem is that this does not show up as a “crime” and thus cannot be used by the NYPD to prove “criminal arrest productivity.” The solution is a simple matter of breaking the law, wherein the police officer, after ordering a suspect to turn out their pockets, then charges them with public possession of marijuana. Suddenly this is a more serious crime, warranting a trip to the police station and offering evidence of NYPD's increased effectiveness – all in violation of the Marijuana Reform Act.
According to Professor Harry Levine of Queens College, who compiled much of this evidence, writes:
“When first approached by the police, most people arrested did not have marijuana “burning or open to public view.” Approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of those arrested for marijuana possession were not smoking and most were not displaying the marijuana. Most had marijuana in a pocket or otherwise well concealed in their clothing or possessions. However, the officers who found the marijuana in a search said in their report, and when speaking to an Assistant District Attorney, that they observed the marijuana because it was “open to public view.””
The illegality of police action as it relates to marijuana possession arrests is disconcerting enough. As I said before, it should not be too much to ask for our law enforcement agents to follow the law. But the issue is not merely one of illegal policing; indeed, the evidence found by Professor Levine and the Drug Policy Alliance (as well as many other activist groups) shows that racism plays a huge role in the actions of the NYPD.
Proof positive can be viewed graphically (pun only slightly intended):
The issue is glaringly obvious: while roughly 60% of whites have used marijuana at least once in their lives, only 15% of the marijuana possession arrests made from 1997-2006 were of whites. Compare this to the 27% of blacks and 20% of Latinos who have used marijuana at least once in their lives, and who make up 52% and 31% of the marijuana possession arrests of the last decade respectively.
If the NYPD was actually concerned about busting low level offenders, they would conduct random searches in white neighborhoods. However the illegal searches and arrests are targeted overwhelmingly at blacks and Latinos, demonstrating an obvious racial bias which is disgusting and completely unfounded in reality. The NYPD is acting outside the law and is clearly racist in its application of police power.
Currently legislation has been proposed to codify an edict by NYPD Chief Ray Kelly on a state level which would ensure that police officers have to follow the law. Its about time, especially considering that the illegal and racist actions by the NYPD are actually costing the City an estimated $75 million a year. What is absurd is that the NYPD needs additional legislation to ensure it follows the law and end racist enforcement.