Advocates of drug and juvenile-justice reform have launched a campaign against what they contend are the New York Police Department's illegal "stop and frisks" and the disproportionate number of arrests of black and brown young men for possessing allowable amounts of marijuana.
The "Know Your Rights, Build Your Future" workshops, aiming to inform teens and young men about their rights to resist police officers' random demands that they empty their pockets, were launched last Tuesday night at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem. (The New York Task Force on Racial Disparity & Community Justice Network for Youth, part of the San Francisco-based Haywood Burns Institute, held a separate but related event last Friday in Brooklyn.)
The awareness campaign's launch — and proposed legislation reducing the penalties associated with those arrests — follows a March 2011 report, "Up in Smoke" (pdf), from the national Drug Policy Alliance and the New York City-based Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives.
New York City has the highest per capita arrest rate for marijuana of any locale nationwide, says Gabriel Sayegh, the DPA's director for New York State. That trend, he adds, runs counter to, as one example, last week's vote by Connecticut lawmakers to legalize possession of a half-ounce or less of marijuana and enact a 60-day driver's license suspension for violators ages 21 and younger.
"Up in Smoke" alleges that the NYPD spends $75 million a year on the illegal arrests — despite the fact that New York State decriminalized personal possession of marijuana weighing no more than 7/8 of an ounce in 1977. Possessing the allowed amount or less is a violation, worthy of a ticket and possibly a $100 fine. But if the person has the marijuana in public view, it becomes a misdemeanor, a criminal offense punishable with arrest, a fine and even a prison sentence of up to three months.
What's happening is that disproportionate numbers of black and brown young men, ages 16 to 29, are being duped into publicly revealing their allowable marijuana and then being arrested, thereby gaining a criminal record, advocates say. Police officers will say, "Empty your pockets!" turning a routine stop into an arrest and a police record.
"In 2010 in New York State, there were 54,000 marijuana arrests … 50,000 of them came from New York City, and — surprise, surprise — from neighborhoods that primarily are black, Latino and low income," says Kyung Ji Kate Rhee, executive director of the IJJRA. "It's not like these individuals had a felony charge and marijuana happened to be an additional charge … You're telling me that 50,000 had marijuana in plain view? Does that sound right to you? After that initial point of police contact, they trick you into turning out your pockets."
The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.
Roughly a third of the marijuana arrests are legitimate, Rhee says. The remainder result from racially driven stop-and-frisks for which there is no legal "reasonable suspicion" that a crime has been committed. "A cop approaches a young man of color: 'Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Why are you hanging out on this corner?' " she adds. "Cops can stop people, but there are legal thresholds … [Otherwise], you have the right to walk away.
"If you're a young person of color, of course, you have to use common sense," she continues. "You have to scope out the dynamics and the landscape. The real test is to ask the officer, 'Am I free to go or am I being detained?' If he says you're being detained, that there's a specific suspicion of an illegal activity … there's a form they have to fill out, listing a whole series of stuff they have to check off. It can't be just a hunch that a person has done something wrong."
The DPA's Sayegh says that his office has sought but obtained no official meetings with NYPD higher-ups regarding this issue. What has been made clear by police officers attending meetings at the precinct level and through New York City's network of community boards is that many officers are wholly unaware of the 1977 law, Sayegh says.
Based on that law, it's not uncommon for New York City district attorneys to throw out some of the cases. But those are the exceptions, according to Sayegh. Marijuana arrests, he adds, are an easy means of making what he argues is a per-officer arrest quota.
Various studies have shown that white men are the heaviest marijuana users, Sayegh says. And that makes the illegal arrests in New York City a clear case of racial injustice. "What we're seeing in New York City is, far and away, a worst-case scenario: 500,000 marijuana arrests in the last 10 years," he says. "Particularly as it relates to stop-and-frisks that focus almost entirely on communities of color, there's an ongoing debate as to the propriety and effectiveness of [those arrests]."
Because NYPD is the nation's largest police department, the changes it adopts often tend to set a kind of national standard, he adds. And that might influence change in other municipalities where communities of color are deliberately targeted for certain kinds of low-level, but no less detrimental, arrests, Sayegh explains.
The IJJRA's Rhee says, "If you really are concerned about young people and the choices they make — whatever your opinions on marijuana use — what the NYPD is doing is not the way to go about it."
Katti Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer.