After a decade of aggressively using stop and frisks to produce hundreds of thousands of bogus marijuana arrests, Commissioner Ray Kelly seems to have belatedly reversed course, judging from an internal memo.
In the memo, issued last Sunday and published by WNYC today, Kelly writes: “Questions have been raised about the processing of certain marihuana arrests… A crime will not be charged to an individual who is requested or compelled to engage in the behavior that results in the public display of marihuana.”
As I wrote in the Voice last week:
While personal possession was effectively decriminalized in New York in 1977, the NYPD has simply made its own law since 1997, as a record 50,000-plus arrests for low-level pot crimes in 2010 made it the number one cause of arrest last year. In practice, the 1977 law never got around to young black and Latino men, and the District Attorneys who receive these cases from the police have, for the most part, done little to push the police to stop making these bad arrests. And despite using the drug at a slightly lower clip than non-Hispanic whites, Black and Latinos who are stopped are considerably more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. With cops ordered to make stops to hit their monthly numbers, rather than in response to suspicions of illegal activities, marijuana arrests are a relatively easy way of getting there.
(And Steven Thrasher has a must-read on the same topic in this week’s Voice.)
It’s a remarkable turnaround for the commissioner, who defended the arrests earlier this year after a report by the Drug Policy Alliance showing the city spent $75 million to arrest pot smokers. Then, Kelly said: “The law clearly says if you have marijuana in public view, you should be arrested. It’s a misdemeanor.”
The move comes after a difficult August for the department, which including a spike in high-profile violent crimes, the needless arrest of a two city officials of color at the Caribbean Day Parade, two grandparents (not criminals) who were shot and killed apparently by the police in two separate incidents, as well as an ongoing scandal involving ticket-fixing, quotas and allegations of more serious misdoings in the Bronx.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Tony Newman, director of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Voice, calling the memo a “good first step.”
“But the devil’s in the details,” he said. “We’ll have to see how they implement this.”