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When the city of Philadelphia decriminalized cannabis in 2014, it did so in part because of a huge racial disparity in how marijuana crimes were enforced. And in the five years since switching from handcuffs to civil tickets for offenses like smoking in public and minor possession, Philly PD has handed out some 12,000 tickets. But did decriminalization disrupt the city’s racist policing tendencies?
According to a new deep dive from Billy Penn, one in four marijuana citations handed out in the past four years have been confined to one predominantly black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. Another quarter of tickets were distributed in Philly’s bustling Center City district, where local residents say that people are color are targeted for ticketing while white smokers are ignored.
“A group of white kids sitting in the park actually smoking, they ride right by them,” said Kevin Stevenson, a 34-year-old artist who told Billy Penn he has received five public possession and consumption tickets since 2014. “They come over here instead. They target the people who look like me — dreads, African American, young.”
To make matters worse, because civil infractions are not tracked in the same manner as traditional arrests, Philly PD have stopped collecting demographic data of their cannabis policing since decriminalization. In turn, local activists do not have the statistics to determine the extent of any racial disparity in pot citations.
“Time and again, it’s been shown that officers in the Philadelphia Police Department have a racial bias problem,” Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the ACLU of PA, told Billy Penn. “So data collection on police behavior is vital for promoting transparency and accountability.”
Gallery — Photos of Cops Smoking Weed:
A few miles north in New York City, racially-biased policing has continued, as well, despite the Empire State also decriminalizing. Last year, data indicated that 90% of cannabis arrests targeted New Yorkers of color. This year, however, lawmakers have taken steps to expunge minor cannabis convictions in an attempt to undo some damage from the War on Drugs.
In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are also working their way through medical marijuana expansion and adult-use cannabis legislation. But with no recreational bill currently on the table, it might take a few years before full-scale legalization comes to address the prohibition problems in Philly. In the meantime, advocates like Hoover have called for a sweeping change to the PPD data collection system in order to add oversight to the department’s civil policing.
“It would be a valuable service to the community, to show whether or not officers are enforcing the ordinance in a fair way,” Hoover said.
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