Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on a pledge to tone down the NYPD's practice of turning possession of small amounts of marijuana into a crime, when officially it is supposed to be treated like a traffic ticket. So it may come as a surprise that marijuana arrests are up nearly a third so far this year, the third year of de Blasio's mayoralty, compared to the same period in 2015.
To recap: Possession of fewer than 25 grams of weed was decriminalized in New York in 1977, unless the bud is being held or smoked in public view. Under former police commissioner Ray Kelly, arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana skyrocketed. By 2010, police arrested 50,383 people for the offense (a far cry from the 5,700 arrested in 1995, in part under Bratton's last stint at the helm of the police department). Embarrassed by reports that officers were overwhelmingly arresting African-American and Hispanic New Yorkers for possession, largely on the bogus basis of illegal searches and orders to empty pockets that ended with a joint or baggie in a person's hand, Kelly sent a memo to all officers in the fall of 2011 telling them to stop (i.e. start following the law).
The arrests remained enough of an issue that de Blasio raised them again in the heated 2013 mayoral race. They did drop after he took office, with the help of a directive by him and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton in November 2014 again ordering officers once again to not make arrests unless appropriate. Police made 26,400 weed collars for the year.
The latest figures show a nearly 30 percent increase, from 7,236 in the first half of 2015 to 9,331 in the same period this year. Figures like these, and the fact that just 9 percent of those arrested were white, even though studies tend to show that white people smoke pot at rates roughly equal to if not greater than black and Latino people, run counter to the claims of Bratton that his cops police equitably.
"It challenges directly Bratton's statement that, 'We don't target communities of color, we target behavior,'" said Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, which publicized the latest NYPD figures this week. "Clearly we target community of color."
Police Reform Organizing Project director Robert Gangi (YouTube)
Last week, Bratton announced that he is leaving the NYPD in September. As the soon-to-be-former top cop toured local news outlets managing his legacy, Gangi found himself unexpectedly singled out as part of the "radical fringe" of protesters whom Bratton encouraged reporters to "investigate" instead of digging into police misconduct.
"You've got one character, Robert Gangi, who claims to head some type of activist group that sits in the courtrooms all month long and counts how many minorities come through versus whites in the process," Bratton told NY1's Errol Louis. "Who is Robert Gangi? Who does he represent? Is he appointed by anybody? Does he speak for anybody other than himself?"
This isn't Bratton's first outburst by a long shot. The outgoing top cop has said that marijuana should not be legalized because it is the source of "the vast majority" of violence in New York City, among other doozies. Nevertheless, his targeting of PROP caught Gangi off guard.
"It surprised me him calling us out singling out me and PROP and the work that we do," Gangi said. "Then I thought about it, and I realized: our work goes directly at the core of NYPD's policing. Not only is it racially disproportionate and it's offensive, but it's racist. The numbers are undeniable."
Outgoing NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton (Getty Images)
Based on an analysis of court and police costs by the Drug Policy Alliance, PROP estimates that each marijuana arrest costs the city $1,750, or $16.3 million so far this year. Reached about the activist group's latest analysis, the NYPD again denied racial profiling, and attacked Gangi.
"The New York City Police Department enforces marihuana laws through observation, in response to a 911 calls [sic], and community complaints," Lieutenant John Grimpel wrote in an email. "Robert Ganji’s predictable and repeated attempts to malign the department lack any factual basis. We fight crime where we find it. Any other characterization is Gangji’s [sic] 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."
A spokeswoman for the Mayor's Office repeated the point, saying that the overall decline in marijuana arrests since de Blasio took office is the real story, and part of the administration's reforms that are "strengthening the relationship between police and community while keeping New York the safest big city in America." The spokeswoman, Monica Klein, declined to address why it is that nonwhite people bear the brunt of marijuana enforcement.
It's impossible to parse from the data how many of those arrested for marijuana were caught with more than 25 grams, versus those pinched for a smaller amount exposed in an illegal search, or for simply smoking a joint on the corner. Anecdotally, public defenders have said in years past that illegal searches and orders to empty one's pockets constitute a majority of the grounds for pot possession busts. Whatever the case, Gangi said his group believes none of those things should result in a trip to jail.
"I live on the West Side, and it's predominately white and affluent," Gangi said. "When I walk my dog...every once in a while I'll smell marijuana smoke. It's clear that no one is concerned about going to jail for that."