The NYPD 'Weeds' Out Blacks and Latinos

New study outlines racial disparity in NYC's staggering number of pot busts

In April 2001, when asked in an interview if he'd ever smoked pot, mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg replied: "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it." The billionaire mayor's reign, however, has been anything but enjoyable for dope smokers, especially those who aren't white. More people have already been locked up for misdemeanor marijuana possession during Bloomberg's first six years in office—some 214,300—than during any other administration in city history, including the full eight years of former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani.

Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately busted on minor pot charges. That's hardly shocking in a city where the Sean Bell case—yet another instance of an unarmed black person's death at the hands of cops—currently dominates the news.

More people get arrested for misdemeanor pot possession in Bloomberg's New York—about 35,700 a year, or 97 per day—than in any other city in the U.S. and "almost certainly" the world, says the author of a new study. (For perspective, when Ray Kelly was police commissioner for the first time in 1993, there were 1,600 misdemeanor marijuana-possession arrests, a pretty typical year back then.) These trippy stats come from "Marijuana Arrest Crusade," a study by Queens College sociology professor Harry Levine and drug-law-reform activist Deborah Peterson Small.

Drug surveys routinely indicate that a higher percentage of whites smoke pot than blacks or Latinos, but Levine found that African-Americans have consistently accounted for about 52 percent of these low-level marijuana arrests over the past decade, even though they're only about 26 percent of the city's population. Latinos, at 27 percent of the total population, account for 31 percent of the arrests. Whites are 36 percent of the population but account for only 15 percent of pot arrests.

That racial breakdown mirrors another set of data that the NYPD has been reluctant to make public: the stop-and-frisk numbers. From 2004 through 2007, police made 1,692,488 stops—ostensibly for suspicious activity. Of those stopped, 51 percent were black, 29 percent Latino, and 10 percent white. A staggering 1,496,100—or 88 percent—of those stopped were never charged.

NYPD officials dating back to the Giuliani years have tried explaining away the skewed stop-and-frisk numbers by saying those percentages are roughly the same as the racial breakdown of suspect descriptions. For some reason, this has remained the pat answer going on 10 years, despite statistics showing that only about 19 percent of total stops were based on suspect descriptions. The majority, records have shown, result from officers' subjective observations, such as "furtive movements," "suspicious bulge," and the always popular "other."

There appears to be nothing even as tenuous as the "suspect description" excuse for the NYPD to fall back on to explain the racial disparities in pot busts. The marijuana-arrest rate for black New Yorkers is five times higher than whites; for Latinos, it's three times higher—despite the fact, as previously noted, that a higher percentage of whites smoke pot, both nationally and in New York.

"I just don't see how they can justify the fact that more whites smoke marijuana than blacks and Hispanics, but more blacks and Hispanics are arrested for it. I just don't know how," Levine tells the Voice.

If the NYPD knows, it's not saying: Its spokesman won't comment. And neither will Bloomberg's aides.

Levine's study also makes the startling claim that most of those who've been busted "were actually not guilty of what they were charged with." Levine says that they estimated, after talking to Legal Aid and defense attorneys, that two-thirds to three-quarters of the people arrested "are not smoking in public," but instead had marijuana in a pocket, purse, or backpack. Possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana is a non-criminal violation—not even a misdemeanor—and the cops used to just issue tickets for it. But the arrests cited in Levine's study were all made for having marijuana "burning or open to public view," a misdemeanor charge meant to dissuade open lawlessness.

Levine says that the charge is often achieved through trickery. For instance, according to Levine, the cop tells the person being detained, "Show me what's in your pocket and I'll go easy on you," or may simply order in a loud voice: "Let's see what's in your pockets." When the person pulls out the marijuana, it now becomes the misdemeanor offense of "open to public view."

Levine contends that the skewed racial numbers aren't merely a matter of prejudice by individual cops, but rather a "racially biased, discriminatory, unfair, and unjust" systematic focus within the NYPD on black and Latino young men.

Statistically, there are just as many young white people walking around the Upper West Side neighborhoods near Columbia University with pot in their pockets as there are blacks holding marijuana a few blocks away in Harlem. But Harlem has one of the highest marijuana-arrest rates, while the Upper West Side has one of the lowest.

That's because more city cops are assigned to "high-crime" areas, most of which are disproportionately black or Latino, Levine says. The cops are then pushed to meet Kelly's "productivity goals," which the police union's lawyers contend in pending lawsuits are actually "illegal quotas" for arrests and stop-and-frisks.

"The police catch so many more of one kind of fish because they are mostly searching in certain waters," Levine says.

Marijuana pinches are generally easy and safe, and they provide overtime while giving the appearance of productivity, he says. And who's easier to arrest: young and poor black and Latino men, who Levine says "usually lack the political and social connections that might make the arrests troublesome or embarrassing for the police," or white college kids whose parents can probably afford lawyers who make a living picking apart weak cases?

Whether as a byproduct or by design, these mass pot arrests have enabled the NYPD to add thousands of new names, photographs, and fingerprints to their criminal-record databases. Levine's study found that 60 percent of those arrested on misdemeanor pot charges since 1997 didn't have prior criminal records.

"Marijuana arrests are the best and easiest way currently available to acquire data on young people, especially black and Latino youth, who have not previously been entered into the criminal-justice databases," Levine testified last year at a legislative hearing on a proposal to expand the state's DNA database to include all those arrested for misdemeanors.

Levine argues that this costly enforcement strategy ultimately causes only more problems by "socializing" young blacks and Latinos to the jail culture and making a life of crime more likely, because many places where these young men might otherwise find employment don't hire those with criminal records.

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