Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner Bill Bratton are reportedly ready to announce a big change in the way the NYPD deals with low-level pot arrests. Police officers will begin issuing tickets for pot possession rather than making an arrest, according to a report published by the New York Times on Sunday. The change would mean anyone found in possession of a small amount of pot would be given a notice to show up in court, rather than put in handcuffs and hauled down to the station, where they would have to be fingerprinted and have a mugshot taken.
It sounds like a step in the right direction, but advocates and officials are voicing concerns about the proposed changes.
“It’s certainly an interesting development, and on the one hand, this could be really good if they follow through with it,” Gabriel Sayegh, director of the New York State office of the Drug Policy Alliance, tells the Voice. It could save tens of thousands of New Yorkers every year from getting swept into the criminal justice system, but, Sayegh adds, “There are real questions about how it will be implemented.”
Questions like: How will police determine who gets a summons? It’s already legal to possess a small amount of pot in New York City, as long as it’s not in public view — it has been legal since 1977, but some 28,000 pot-related arrests were still made in New York City in 2013. Pot arrests started to rise in the mid ’90s — around the same time that Bratton instituted his signature “Broken Windows” approach to policing — and continued to rise through the stop-and-frisk era. Under stop-and-frisk, officers had a pretense under which to ask people to empty their pockets; if they turned out a bag of pot, those people were then arrested for having marijuana in public view.
“Right now, police are only enforcing this law in low-income communities of color,” Sayegh says. The Drug Policy Alliance has the statistics to back that up. The group has released study after study illustrating the fact that arrest rates are exponentially higher in those communities.
The Drug Policy Alliance knows this because it has the data. But if all of these tickets are changed to summonses, the data so crucial to illustrating racial and income disparities in these arrests would no longer be available. “Police do not collect demographic information” for tickets, Sayegh says — “it could move this entire operation into this black box.”
Again, he says, it could be a really good step, but both de Blasio and Bratton would have to address the way that these stops, even if they only result in a ticket rather than an arrest, disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos. He wants to hear the mayor and police commissioner say something to the effect of: ” ‘We are changing the way we conduct these stops and we’re going to bring our practices in line with the law’ — if they don’t say that, that’s a real concern.”
Brooklyn D.A. Kenneth Thompson is concerned about the fact that issuing citations instead of making arrests will mean there will be no oversight. Thompson announced earlier this year that he intended to stop prosecuting low-level marijuana arrests, but a citation, unlike an arrest, goes straight before a judge instead of through the D.A.’s office, where it could be dismissed.
Thompson told the Times that without the checks and balances currently in place, there is a “serious concern” that tickets could be issued and move forward even in cases where due process was not respected. There’s also no legal right to an attorney in these cases, Sayegh added, and both men voiced concern that a ticket can convert to an arrest warrant if a person misses his or her court date.
There are obvious upsides too — an arrest won’t go on a person’s permanent record and follow him or her around for life. Those are the “disastrous consequences” that de Blasio warned of as a candidate. In his campaign literature, de Blasio explained how low-level pot arrests threatened “one’s ability to qualify for student financial aid, and undermine[d] one’s ability to [secure] stable housing and good jobs” — and worse, de Blasio said, they seemed to show a “clear racial bias.”
Despite his promises to do something about the problem, pot arrests have continued to rise in de Blasio’s New York. The rate of those arrests was up 3 percent between March and August compared with the same period a year before, according to a report released by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project. The NYPD is on track to make 28,000 arrests this year, about the same as last year, with black and Latino New Yorkers expected to make up 85 percent of those arrests.
De Blasio and Bratton are scheduled to hold a press conference on Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. at 1 Police Plaza.