Why NYPD officers are unhappy with New York's new marijuana policy

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced Monday that possessing small amounts of marijuana would be a ticketable offense, instead of a felony. Some NYPD officers are bristling at the change and hinting at a work slowdown.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton holds an example of what 25 grams of marijuana would look like next to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio during a news conference regarding marijuana policy in New York. Under the policy change, people caught with less than 25 grams of marijuana on them 'may be eligible' to receive a summon in lieu of being arrested. The bag shown in the news conference actually contained oregano.

The aggressive street tactics of the New York City Police Department – especially its steady arrests of minorities possessing small amounts of marijuana in high-crime neighborhoods – has been one of the most vexing political issues in the city for nearly a decade.

So when Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced Monday that cops on the street would begin scaling back on the number of the city’s low-level felony marijuana arrests, and simply issue tickets with a $100 fine instead, they were hoping at long last to quell the decade-long controversy over the dramatic racial disparities found for such arrests.

But controversy continues to swirl this week. New York City cops, whose low-level pot busts over the past two decades have made the city the marijuana arrest capital of the world, are bristling again at the change in street-level tactics, which also included a dramatic reduction of “stop, question, and frisk” pat downs earlier this year.

And some beat cops are whispering about a work slowdown, The New York Daily News reports, citing police sources.

“Some guys are really blaming de Blasio,” Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, told the News. “The guy just doesn’t get it with this whole far-left agenda, and he’s putting (cops) in a bad spot.”

 Sergeant Mullins also said some precinct sergeants “are saying, ‘If that’s what they want, then let them have it.' ”

Over the past 20 years, the NYPD has arrested nearly 600,000 people for possessing a sandwich-size bag of pot or less. More than 8 of 10 of these people have been black and Latino, even though whites use the drug at similar – and for young people, higher – rates.

The focus on low-level pot busts in high-crime neighborhoods allows cops to discover more serious crimes, such as gun possession and more serious drugs. The NYPD sees this as an essential tactic for fighting crime. 

Many long-time critics, too, remain unsatisfied with the new policy. The city’s summons system, which adjudicates tickets and municipal fines, has deep racial disparities as well, they point out. Furthermore, tickets, unlike arrests, do not track racial and demographic data, and they do not provide the same due process rights for the accused.

“In order to give the public confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system, these cases should be subject to prosecutorial review,” Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson told The New York Times, reacting to the mayor’s announcement Monday. “By allowing these cases to avoid early review, by issuing a summons, there is a serious concern that many summonses will be issued without the safeguards currently in place. These cases will move forward even when due process violations might have occurred.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Thompson’s office said it would no longer prosecute those arrested for low-level marijuana possession, if the accused had no prior records or outstanding warrants. Since July, Brooklyn prosecutors have dismissed the cases of about 850 individuals carrying small amounts of pot, nearly a third of all such cases, the Times reports.   

Nearly 81 percent of the 7.3 million people given tickets of all sorts between 2001 and 2013 were black and Hispanic, according to a recent analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

But the issue is both politically and logistically complex. On the one hand, in 1977, New York State already decriminalized possessing less than 25 grams of marijuana, making it merely a ticketable offense. Displaying it openly in public, or smoking it on the streets, however, was and is still considered a felony misdemeanor.

New York City cops have used this as a kind of tactical loophole when arresting those found with small amounts of the drug. Often when they make a stop, they order the person to empty his or her pockets. Then, when even small amounts of marijuana become displayed “in open view,” the person can be arrested. 

For example, a low-level pot dealer could be carrying up to 30 “dime bags” of the drug – small packets that sell for 10 bucks – and still have less than 25 grams. Technically, this is only a ticketable offense if the drugs are not displayed in open view.

“If the current practice of making arrests for both possession and sale of marijuana is, in fact, abandoned, then this is clearly the beginning of the breakdown of a civilized society,” Mullins told The New York Post after the mayor and commissioner announced the new policy.

“It’s counterproductive to the broken-windows theory,” he continued. “If we’re not making marijuana arrests, then we may not pop someone who has a warrant on them or who committed felony crimes.’’

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