Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s memo ordering the NYPD to stop arresting people for low level marijuana possession not in plain view will apply to “all police officers,” not just “uniformed members of the service,” the Voice has learned.
When WNYC broke the story about Kelly’s memo on Friday, there was one glaring term that gave those concerned about marijuana arrests pause: the order applied to “uniformed members of the service.”
Was Kelly, drug reform advocates and NYPD insiders wondered, giving himself some wiggle room here? Was this merely a loophole to allow plainclothes narcotics police to continue using stop-and-frisks to arrest New Yorkers for pot?
According to WNYC, the “NYPD did not respond to a request for comment” on Ailsa Chang’s scoop on Friday. However, the department responded to a question about it to the Voice on Sunday, and confirmed that Kelly’s order does, in fact, apply to “all police officers.”
The word “uniformed” was a cause for worry to people like Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, who expressed his doubt about it to the Voice in an interview over the weekend:
“Now, if I’m looking where Kelly might be hedging? The principal way in which he may be qualifying this order, or minimizing its reach, is that [the order uses the phrase] uniformed members. Uniformed members. And as I understand this, many of the arrests [for marijuana] are made by cops who are not in uniform. Will this affect arrest by uniformed officers only? Why is the order only addressing them and not plainclothes officers? This is not clear to me, if this has some internal meaning or not.”
We posed the question directly to the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, writing:
“Regarding the memo WNYC reported on regarding marijuana arrests — Is this order limited to uniformed members of the NYPD? The order uses the word ‘uniformed.’ Will this order be applied equally to patrol police in uniform, as well as to narcotics police or special police patrols who may be in street clothes? Or will plainclothes members on patrol be exempt from this order?”
The NYPD wrote back quickly that the order does apply to “all police officers.”
This clarification is significant. An exemption for narcotics officers or plainclothes officers who are not technically in uniform would have meant that the very cops who specialize in drug arrests were not bound by Kelly’s order.
If the NYPD follows Kelly’s mandate, it should mean a significant reduction in the 50,000 plus people arrested for having small levels of marijuana each year under Mayor Bloomberg, despite the fact that personal possession of pot hasn’t been an arrestable offense under New York State law since 1977.
“Far too many of our young men are not fully sharing in the promise of the American Dream,” Bloomberg said when he rolled out his Young Men’s Initiative last month to help young black and Latino New York males. Kelly’s memo is not a part of the initiative. But, it could potentially do more to keep young men of color out of the criminal justice system (and give them a shot at the American Dream) than just about any other tool at the mayor’s disposal.
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Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance Responds to the Big NYPD Marijuana News