Patch: NYPD Won't Alter Pot Arrest Policy Despite Race Disparity Concern

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The NYPD has no plan to change exceptions to a go-easy policy for public marijuana smoking despite concerns that they fuel racial disparities.

NYPD cops in September started giving out criminal summonses to New Yorkers caught smoking pot in public instead of arresting them. But the grace doesn't apply to several groups of people who have had past entanglements with the criminal system, such as those on parole or probation or with active arrest warrants.

While the shift has corresponded with a sharp drop in arrests, advocates worry the exemptions have contributed to a racial disparity in who gets cuffed for using a drug that's legal in several states. But police officials have stood by them — an NYPD spokeswoman said Wednesday that there are currently no plans to revise the policy.

"The NYPD believes the current marijuana policy allows officers to do their jobs effectively and safely, and in a way that always promotes public safety and quality of life for all New Yorkers," the spokeswoman, Sgt. Jessica McRorie, said in a statement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD announced the more lenient approach to public pot smoking last year amid concerns about a longstanding racial disparity in marijuana arrests.

But the disparity has persisted — Black and Hispanic people accounted for 92 percent of the 606 low-level marijuana arrests in the first three months of this year, NYPD statistics show. That rate is up from 89 percent in 2018 and 86 percent in 2017.

City Councilman Rory Lancman quoted those figures to Police Commissioner James O'Neill at a hearing last week, arguing that the exceptions to the NYPD's policy inherently expose more people of color to arrest.

"If you're excluding from benefits of the new policy people who have criminal justice system involvement, well, in this city, because of decades of our criminal justice system and policing strategies, overwhelmingly the people who have criminal justice system involvement are people of color," the Queens Democrat said.

But O'Neill pointed to the nearly 89 percent drop in low-level marijuana arrests this year — there were just 436 in the first three months of 2019, down from 3,947 in the same period last year, he said.

And a total of 9,794 black and Hispanic people were arrested for pot-related offenses last year, a roughly 50 percent decrease from more than 19,700 in 2017, according to statistics McRorie provided.

O'Neill expressed concern about the racial disparities and said the NYPD wants to work with the council to reduce them. But when Lancman asked if he would consider changing the exceptions, he said, "At this time, no."

"I think the exceptions that I outlined are an important component of our overall enforcement effort and overall crime strategy effort," O'Neill said at last week's hearing.

Legal Aid Society attorney Anthony Posada said the exemptions in the current policy are "another pathway to continue criminalizing" communities of color. But he said a deeper solution would be to legalize marijuana altogether, a step that officials are considering at the state level.

"Nobody ever said that legalization is going to cure racism in policing," said Posada, who is the supervising attorney of Legal Aid's Community Justice Unit. "… What it does is that it takes away at least one of those tools to continue making arrests and funneling people through the criminal justice system."