Queens County Criminal Courthouse // Eagle Photo by Andy Katz

Police Reform Group Charges That Queens Weed Busts Discriminate

By David Brand

There’s a new marijuana policy coming to town and the latest arrest data from the New York Police Department reveal the vast racial disparities that prompted the change.

In the first six months of 2018, 93 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession in New York City were black or Hispanic. The data was compiled from NYPD arrest records and distributed in a report released by the Police Reform Organizing Project.

Though the marijuana arrest data was not separated by borough, the racial disparity is evident in Queens courtrooms, where a disproportionate number of black and Latino people appear in the arraignment part for low-level offenses, said PROP executive director Robert Gangi.

Between Jan. 19 and Aug. 2, 2017, PROP staff and volunteers visited arraignment courts in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens 69 times to observe and record 1,612 cases. Of those cases, 1,438 — or 89.2 percent — involved people of color. Overall, people of color comprise just 46 percent of the population in New York City, according to the 2010 Census. PROP reported that Possession of Marijuana in the 5th Degree was the most common charge observed.

Of the 446 cases that PROP observed in Queens, 381 of the defendants  — 85.4 percent — were people of color. The number outpaces the proportion of Queens residents who identify as people of color — roughly 72 percent.

People use marijuana at similar rates regardless of race or ethnicity, studies consistently show.

Queens Criminal Court does not separate misdemeanor and felony parts, like some of the boroughs do, but most arraignments relate to low-level offenses, Gangi said. And, most often, those low-level offenses entangle people of color in the criminal justice system.

“The legal community has to engage in activities, write pieces, do public demonstrations and tell the story,” he said. “Public defenders are working the arraignment courts every day and they know people are getting arrested for innocuous activities and they should do a more aggressive job to expose this.”

PROP staff will return to the arraignments part today to observe more cases in order to “create awareness and political momentum,” Gangi said.

Chart by David Brand

Local lawmakers have also taken notice of the recent report on racial disparities and condemned the policing pattern that leads to the disparity.

“How is it that whites use and sell marijuana at similar rates to blacks and Latinos but nine out of 10 people arrested for marijuana possession are black or brown?” Council Member Francisco Moya told the Queens Daily Eagle. “Because marijuana policies are selectively enforced — which is to say, because of an unjust system that criminalizes people of color for the same behavior that white people commit with relative impunity.”

Council Member Rory Lancman, who is reportedly considering a run for Queens County District Attorney, took to Twitter to address the report.

“The continued racially disparate enforcement of marijuana possession and fare evasion should outrage every New Yorker,” Lancman said.

Previous reports on the vast racial disparities in arrest data prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD to instruct officers to issues summonses rather than make arrests in most cases of low-level marijuana possessions

In June, de Blasio and NYPD Chief James O’Neill announced the city’s much-anticipated new policy on marijuana enforcement, which instructs police officers to issue summonses rather than make arrests for most low-level marijuana offenses beginning Sept. 1.

De Blasio said the new policy will make enforcement more equitable.

“Nobody’s destiny should hinge on a minor non-violent offense,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “This new policy will help reduce unnecessary arrests, while making our City fairer and safer.”

According to the City, the policy will reduce the number of marijuana arrests by about 10,000 per year. Advocates for full legalization say the “minor non-violent offense” of smoking marijuana will indeed continue to ensnare individuals in the criminal justice system. The new policy states that low-level marijuana offenses will still result in arrest for people on parole and probation — a population that disproportionately skews black and brown.

In June, Lancman said the new policy does not go far enough and will continue to disproportionately affect people of color.

“No one should be arrested for smoking marijuana, period,” Council Member Rory Lancman (D – 24th District) said in a statement, adding that the new policy “will likely make marijuana policing even more discriminatory toward people of color, continues to expose noncitizens to deportation and takes no steps to eliminate the collateral consequences which are in the City’s control.”

In a statement to various media outlets, the NYPD said it “enforces the law fairly and equally, and works tirelessly every day to keep every resident and every neighborhood safe.”

Over the next month, however, the existing arrest policy could continue to disproportionately affect people of color, said New York Immigration Coalition attorney Camille Mackler.

Mackler said that a disproportionate emphasis on low-level misdemeanors in Latino communities can put noncitizens, including undocumented immigrants and permanent residents seeking naturalization, on the radar of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Any contact with police is problematic for immigrants because it really increases the risk of deportation,” Mackler said. “It’s problematic because drug offenses can be pretty dangerous in an immigration case and can result in expulsion.”

Misdemeanors also lend superficial credence to the Trump’s administration’s campaign to brand undocumented immigrants as criminals, Mackler said

“But when you look at the data, the crimes are mostly low level offenses,” she said.

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