Do Fewer Marijuana Arrests Mark a Change in the NYPD’s Policing Philosophy?

New Yorkers may be toking more brazenly than ever before, but the NYPD says marijuana arrests are the lowest they’ve been in almost two decades.

In 2015, arrests for the sale, felony possession, and low-level criminal possession of marijuana in New York City were down by 11,000 — for a total of just under 22,000. “We have not seen this low [a] level of marijuana arrests in New York City since 1997,” said NYPD deputy commissioner Dermot Shea during a press conference on the city’s overall reduction in crime. “That’s a 33 percent reduction…on top of the big reduction last year.”

At the end of 2014, the city saw a greater than 60 percent reduction in marijuana arrests following Mayor Bill de Blasio’s then-new decriminalization policy of not arresting those with less than 25 grams of marijuana, so long as it wasn’t visible and burning. Arrests for the criminal possession of marijuana dropped to 306 between November 19, 2014 — when the new policy went into effect — and November 30; the previous year, over those same twelve days, there had been 789 arrests.

The 2014 decriminalization policy came 37 years after New York State’s Marijuana Reform Act, which decriminalized possession of 25 grams of marijuana so long as it wasn’t burning or in public view. Officers had often taken advantage of the loophole, asking pedestrians to empty their pockets, thus bringing the pot into plain sight, says Evan Nison, founder of the New York Cannabis Alliance.

The NYPD has come under heavy criticism for practicing so-called “broken windows” policing (which targets low-level crimes like hopping subway turnstiles or smoking a joint in public) as well as stop-and-frisk policies. As part of the latter strategy, officers would stop and question pedestrians (mostly of color) and frisk them for contraband, leading to many low-level marijuana arrests. The American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks were four times more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana charges, despite using cannabis at about an equal rate.

Nison says the sharp drop has been “encouraging” considering that the NYPD has historically targeted minorities and communities of color when looking for marijuana violations. “The NYPD has been ignoring the law and entrapping tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens into arrests for personal marijuana offenses per year,” he says. “Marijuana is something a majority of Americans believe should be legal, and New York should not be arresting anyone for it.”

The reduced number of marijuana arrests marks the beginning of a shift in NYPD policing strategy. However, New York City still saw more than 15,000 arrests for low-level possession of marijuana in public over the past year. Based on data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, of those arrested for marijuana possession and sale, 92.5 percent were people of color.

A number of factors as well as a shift in NYPD philosophy and behavior have led to the reduction in low-level marijuana arrests, explains David Kennedy, criminal justice professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and director of the National Network for Safe Communities, an organization dedicated to combating violent crime and reducing incarceration. “One thing that absolutely has to matter is that there’s been on the order of a 95 percent reduction in the number of street stops in New York City. We know those stops were focused on young men of color in certain neighborhoods, [which was] a prime driver of low-level marijuana arrests,” says Kennedy. He also notes that this past year, the NYPD changed course, stating that it was no longer going to arrest for certain categories of marijuana offenses. “They could [arrest], but they’re not. Those events may end up in summonses but won’t be resulting in arrests any longer.”

The Brooklyn district attorney’s office has even stated that it will no longer bring charges for certain low-level marijuana arrests. “This kind of policy change ripples backwards. When officers know that when they make an arrest it will be essentially automatically dismissed, they’re a lot less likely to make the arrest in the first place,” says Kennedy.

Attitudes are changing not only in New York but also nationally, Kennedy adds: “Lots of working police officers simply don’t regard marijuana as the issue which they regarded it even a short time ago. What’s happened in Colorado and in Washington State, the shifts with medical marijuana have taken some of the edge off the police desire to do marijuana enforcement.”

The decreased number of marijuana arrests accompanies a greater wave of crime reduction in New York City. Overall crime is down 5.8 percent since January 2014 and 1.7 percent in 2015. There were 800,000 “non-events” between individuals and police officers in 2015, according to Kennedy. “The wonderful part about this story is that two years ago, when people were saying stop-and-frisk policy is unconstitutional and it has to stop, lots of people were saying we have to keep doing this or violence will skyrocket. None of this has happened,” he says. “Crime is either down or flat, and fewer people are having unpleasant encounters with both the NYPD and the rest of the criminal justice system. That can only be a good thing.” Complaints against the police are down as well, Kennedy adds, and they’re able to combat more serious crime.

“We’re after the right kind of contact with the right people, rather than lots of contact with everybody,” says Kennedy. “Being precise, being surgical, being effective against the relatively small number of people who drive serious crime and disorder — that’s serious work. It takes time, information, and planning. That’s the right way to do the work.” The police department is putting more energy into targeting real offender networks, gangs, and drug sets, rather than focusing on many people who turn out to be non-criminal and non-violent, he says.

Felony arrests are down by 3 percent, misdemeanors by 12 percent, and lowest-level arrests by 15 percent, says Deputy Commissioner Shea.

“At this point, 2015 marks the safest year in the modern history of New York City,” police commissioner William J. Bratton said in a statement. “Since 1993, we have experienced more than a 75 percent decrease in crime and an 81 percent decrease in murders. Today, we are practicing precision policing focused on addressing the pockets of crime that remain, while exercising discretion in enforcement and reducing the number of enforcement encounters across the city.”

Still, critics are skeptical. “Some of this I find really frustrating and aggravating,” says Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP). “They make 15,000 arrests for possession of marijuana, and that is supposed to be applauded because it’s [about] 10,000 less than last year. That’s still a lot of arrests, and extraordinary racial biases associated with these practices are continued. It’s discriminatory and abusive policing of people who are not dangerous or predatory.” The reduction in marijuana arrests is not a true fundamental change, he says. “Broken-windows policing is still the dominant philosophy and strategy.”

Likewise, advocates for marijuana law reform are still pushing for more progress. “While it’s of course great to see this reduction, there are still far too many people being arrested for marijuana in New York City on a daily basis. And because the state’s new medical marijuana program is far too restrictive, there are going to be lots of patients who can’t find the relief they need,” says Tom Angell, Brooklyn resident and founder of Marijuana Majority. “New York lawmakers need to catch up to other states and pass comprehensive legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana. Doing so will not only stop people from being senselessly arrested, but will create jobs and generate new tax revenue.”


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