Police officers in New York City arrest cannabis users of color at eight times the rate of white weed smokers, despite similar amounts of consumption across all ethnicities. And while NYPD officials would have you believe that the disparity is due to the volume of 911 and 311 weed complaints called in to local precincts, new data suggests that the problem is, in fact, institutional, with widespread racial biases informing marijuana policing in all five boroughs.
In February of this year, the New York City Council held a hearing to address the city's continued racial discrepancies in marijuana arrests. But, when presented with official statistics showing that out of 17,800 people put in handcuffs for pot in 2017, 86% were racial minorities, NYPD Chief Dermot Shea claimed that the anti-cannabis actions were simply responses to 911 and 311 phone complaints and not due to racially-discriminatory policing.
"Where we make the majority of our arrests are where we tend to get the most complaints," Chief Shea told City Councilors at the February hearing.
Taking that explanation with an extra-large grain of salt, investigators at the New York Times have spent the last few months testing Chief Shea's outlandish claim and found that concerned phone calls do not come close to explaining the racist policing tactics employed by the NYPD.
Comparing individual precinct's marijuana arrest stats with each area's demographic make-up and cannabis complaint data, Times investigators found that, across all five boroughs, police make more marijuana arrests in neighborhoods with primarily black and brown residents, despite equal amounts of 911 and 311 calls elsewhere.
"In Brooklyn, officers in the precinct covering Canarsie arrested people on marijuana possession charges at a rate more than four times as high as in the precinct that includes Greenpoint, despite residents calling 311, the city's help line, and 911 to complain about marijuana at the same rate," the New York Times investigation detailed. "The Canarsie precinct is 85 percent black. The Greenpoint precinct is 4 percent black."
Across the East River in Manhattan, those disparities are just as pronounced, with black New Yorkers arrested at 15 times the rate of white Manhattanites. Looking at specific precincts, the cops in West Harlem made twice as many marijuana arrests last year than their counterparts in the Upper West Side, despite an equal number of weed-related complaints.
And while the Times investigation did highlight that complaints about weed smoke were made slightly more frequently in neighborhoods with higher percentages of black and brown New Yorkers, researchers also found that to be a result of institutional racism and not an actual representation of more frequent cannabis use. Since the city's non-white neighborhoods have suffered decades of poverty and lack of investment, residents are often subject to increased street-level policing and have few other options to report minor infractions than to call 911. While white New Yorkers may complain to apartment co-ops, supers, or community boards, New Yorkers of colors often don't have those same resources.
"What you have is people smoking weed in the same places in any neighborhood in the city," Scott Levy, a special counsel to the criminal defense practice at the Bronx Defenders, who has studied marijuana arrests, told the Times. "It's just those neighborhoods are patrolled very, very differently. And the people in those neighborhoods are seen very differently by the police."
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As New York approaches its next gubernatorial election this fall, cannabis has taken center stage. While incumbent governor Andrew Cuomo has tried his best to sweep the city's marijuana arrest problem under the rug, high-profile challenger Cynthia Nixon has made cannabis reform a focus of her campaign, including vocal support for legalization as a way to combat racial discrimination.
Until significant changes are made at an institutional level in both the New York City government and Police Department, officers across the Big Apple will continue to arrest black and brown New Yorkers at higher rates than whites, as well as make up excuses to justify their racist actions. But, as one source accurately noted to the Times about the NYPD: "The resources they waste for this are ridiculous."
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