Whether the statistics are as good as one might hope is always in doubt, but if the NYPD was fudging the numbers for its own sake, they did a pretty lousy job of it.
There are many ways to be arrested on marijuana charges, but one pattern has remained true through years of piecemeal policy changes in New York: The primary targets are black and Hispanic people.
Across the city, black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people over the past three years, The New York Times found. Hispanic people were arrested at five times the rate of white people. In Manhattan, the gap is even starker: Black people there were arrested at 15 times the rate of white people.
When questioned by the New York City Council, the explanation was that they were just responding to 911 calls, complaints, and, hey, it’s not their fault the calls come in about black guys smoking weed. What are they supposed to do? Except they keep stats on 911 calls too, and that blew the argument up.
But according to stats they handed over after the hearing, of the five neighborhoods with the most arrests for criminal possession of marijuana in 2016, only one ranked in the top five for 911 calls about pot.
In 2017, two of the top five neighborhoods for arrests were also in the top five for 911 calls, but the other three were not.
“It does not add up,” said Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Queens), chairman of the Public Safety Committee. “Every community is calling about this issue, so why are black and brown communities the ones who are overly arrested?”
And the numbers of calls and arrests bore little correlation. In other words, the excuse proffered was nonsense.
This is nothing new.* The NYPD has deployed differently, behaved differently and arrested differently in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, precincts, than white areas. Uptown, cops jump out of cars whenever they see a few people on a street corner. They toss kids with abandon, randomly demanding they empty their pockets to see if they’ve got something in there to make their numbers. They close down whole streets uptown to search everyone around.
It’s unimaginable that they would do these things on Sutton Place. And, indeed, they don’t.
The assumptive would argue that the absurdly skewed numbers of minorities arrested reflects nothing more than the “fact” that they’re the ones smoking pot. Is it the cops’ fault they smoke weed and get arrested? If they don’t want to get arrested, don’t smoke weed. Easy.
There are behaviors that make it easier for the cops. Groups of kids hanging around outdoors, whether on corners, in front of bodegas or tenement entrances. They are more likely to be smoking weed in relative public than the white kids downtown, and selling pot isn’t exactly a private affair on many street corners. It’s pretty obvious. And the cops know where it’s happening, sit and watch for a few minutes, then swoop in and take the seller and customer down.
It’s not that white kids aren’t smoking weed as well, but doing so in private makes them harder to find, harder to arrest. That they have the opportunity to do so in private can be chalked up to privilege, but that doesn’t help the argument. If you’re smoking weed in public, you don’t get special dispensation for lack of a safe space to smoke pot.
But this doesn’t come close to explaining the numbers, the differential.
“There is a higher number of this type of behavior being observed in certain parts of the city,” said NYPD spokesman Peter Donald. “And when those observations are happening, appropriate amount of enforcement is being carried out by police officers.”
If you deploy far greater numbers of cops in a neighborhood, you’re going to get far greater numbers of arrests. And far greater numbers of constitutional violations, like randomly stopping and searching people because they look ripe for a bust. Or they’re standing on the corner, which cops have always hated. Why else would they be hanging out if they weren’t up to no good?
Melissa Moore, deputy state director for New York at the Drug Policy Alliance, challenged the NYPD to look at how marijuana is enforced and shift it in a meaningful way.
“Simply continuing to do the same thing year after year, while you are saying you are being responsive to complaints even while the data show that’s not the case is deeply problematic,” she said.
None of this is new, though the explanations and excuses change with whatever seems politically palatable at the moment. Bear in mind that possession of small amounts of pot has been decriminalized in New York for decades. If it’s not “burning or in public view,” it’s a violation, subject to a fine, rather than a misdemeanor. The trick is for the cops to demand the person empty his pockets, which then puts the weed in public view. Boom, it’s now a misdemeanor. Cool trick, right?
And when they’ve got nothing better, they can always claim to smell the odor of burning weed, which obviously can’t be seized as evidence and so relies on the testimony of police. Would cops lie? Of course.
Does any of this happen on the upper east side? If it did, people would go bonkers, be outraged and storm the local party headquarters. If it happened to their little darlings, donations would dry up and torches would be lit. And do these same people know how life goes on above 125th Street? Nah. They’ve never been on the streets of Fort Washington or the South Bronx, watching cops leap out of their cruiser and toss a group of black kids against a brick wall.
Is this racism? The real explanation is that the NYPD, whom Bill de Blasio learned early not to screw with if he doesn’t want to go do war, has always assumed that blacks and Hispanics are criminals, and so that’s where they go to prove they’re doing their job. And if they don’t find crime, they make it. After all, they know who the bad guys are, and it’s not their fault they’re mostly minorities. They’re just doing their job where they’re sure the crime is.
So yes, it’s flagrant racism. It always has been for as long as I can remember.
*One of the reasons I’m disinclined to go turning over rocks to search for racism is that there’s no shortage of it out in the open and no need to employ mental gymnastics to manufacture it when all one needs to do is sit in a bar on 168th Street and watch the cops outside take people down for breathing while black. It’s not an argument. It’s just life uptown.