Even though New York City law enforcement officials have vowed to reform the prosecution of minor marijuana possession, arrests for pot are up this year, especially among minorities.
The number of arrests for marijuana possession over the first six months of 2016 was up by 29% over the same period last year, according to a new report released today by the Police Reform Organizing Project, a watchdog group.
More than 90% of the people arrested for marijuana possession this year were nonwhite. Between January and June, 10 times more nonwhite New Yorkers were arrested for pot than white New Yorkers, even though white people make up almost half of the city's population.
The police watchdog group received the data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Statistics, which receives arrest numbers from law enforcement agencies around the state, including the New York City Police Department.
During a November 2014 press conference, police commissioner William Bratton held up a small plastic baggie filled with pot as Mayor Bill de Blasio stood next to him. Anyone found possessing less than 25 grams of pot—the amount in the bag, shown in the photo at the top of this post—would only get a ticket and wouldn't be arrested, Bratton said.
The reform was intended to reduce the number of criminal prosecutions and arrests, in an attempt to save money and divert more people from jail and prison. “Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately affected,” de Blasio said at the time. "It can literally follow them the rest of their lives, and saddle young people with challenges that for many are very, very difficult to overcome."
There was a decrease of about 50% in arrests between 2014 and 2015, and this year's marijuana arrest numbers are still far below those in the late 2000s. Still, this year's jump in arrests suggests a reversal of the previous decline. Perhaps most concerning is the continuing racial disparity in arrests, which persists even though studies have shown that African-American and white people use marijuana at similar rates.
“These numbers directly challenge Bratton’s claims that the NYPD doesn’t target communities of color,” Robert Gangi, the director of the police reform group, said in an interview. “However they spin it, these numbers show that they continue to target people of color and continue to engage in racist kinds of policing.”
A police department spokesperson said in an email that the report from the watchdog group "lack[s] any factual basis."
"We fight crime where we find it," the spokesperson said. "Any other characterization is Gangi’s failed attempt to garner headlines and gin-up fear. We will continue fighting crime—and we are proud of our record making this the safest big city in America."
But when I asked why they considered the data factually incorrect—as it comes from numbers reported from the NYPD itself—the spokesperson did not respond.
De Blasio spokesperson Monica Klein noted that marijuana arrests overall had declined since 2014. "Whether it’s this marijuana arrest policy, the addition of body cameras, or the launch of neighborhood policing, the reforms made by this administration are strengthening the relationship between police and community while keeping New York the safest big city in America," she said in an email.
Bratton, who announced last week he would step down from his post in September, leaves behind a legacy as one of the nation's top supporters of broken windows policing, a strategy that encourages enforcement of low-level crimes like marijuana possession. But Gangi said he isn't optimistic that the chief's successor, James O'Neill, will reverse the trend of disproportionate arrests of minorities.
“O’Neill has committed to broken windows policing and following in the footsteps of Bratton,” Gangi said. “Significant changes in policing are not going to come from whoever the commissioner is.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.