New York City has long been under pressure to reform its policing. A few months ago, the New York Police Department released some alarming statistics showing that an overwhelming majority of people arrested for marijuana were people of color. Since then, the City Council ruled that the NYPD must publish arrest data. Today at a Washington DC conference, Major De Blasio announced the “overhaul and reform” of New York’s marijuana enforcement laws.
In 2017, there were over 17,000 marijuana arrests. Black and Hispanic people represented 86 percent of those arrested, according to a report published by the Drug Policy Alliance & Marijuana Arrest Research Project. It looks exclusively at data from 2014 to 2016.
Comparatively, only 53 percent of New York City residents identify as Black or Hispanic per a 2010 census.
These figures have already spurred change on the City Council level. In a public hearing on this issue, the NYPD claimed that they answer complaints depending solely on who calls them. They maintained that certain neighborhoods report more to the police, therefore certain communities have higher arrest rates.
Some City Councilmembers took issue with this explanation. Councilman Donovan Richards said, “I refuse to believe that in New York City, a city of eight and a half million, that the only individuals calling 911 or 311 on this issue are people in communities in color.”
The City Council unanimously voted for a bill mandating that the NYPD publish arrest data online. The NYPD website reports the number of low-level marijuana possession arrests per quarter and where these arrests took place. It also divides data by ethnicity, gender, and age.
As the mayor of New York who ran on a platform of rectifying racial inequalities in policing, Mayor de Blasio is facing pointed criticism. The report published by the Drug Policy Alliance is even titled “60,000 Jim Crow Marijuana Arrests in Mayor de Blasio’s New York.”
Mayor de Blasio’s speech at this year’s Center for American Progress’s Ideas Conference addresses these concerns. He begins by explaining that there are fewer arrests on the whole. “Crime is down four years in a row in our city,” he tells the audience. “At the same time, we had 100,000 fewer arrests than just four years ago.”
This is due to a new policing strategy he calls “neighborhood policing.” In short, police officers work in specific neighborhoods, rather than moving between them. The NYPD’s objective is to establish a connection between the police and the residents. De Blasio quotes NYPD Chief of Police Terry Monahan: “We had to invent an entirely new type of policing.”
After enumerating the changes his office orchestrated, the Mayor admits that there are still widespread issues with policing. He pledges, “We must and we will end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement.”
De Blasio claims that this will translate to concrete change. Followed by a round of applause, the Mayor declared, “Today I’m announcing that the NYPD will overhaul and reform its policies related to marijuana enforcement in the next thirty days.”
He expressed that this issue reflects poorly on New York as a whole. “Nothing speaks to the quality of society more than whether people are policed fairly,” he explains. “If they feel they aren’t treated fairly, it’s the ultimate inditement, the ultimate condemnation of society.”
De Blasio did not go into specifics on what this overhaul will mean. He closed an uplifting note—”I feel like we’re seeing things we never saw before”—before exiting the stage.
Though we have yet to hear what these changes will be, the tide may be shifting when it comes to marijuana in New York. Cynthia Nixon, a Sex and the City icon, announced her candidature for governor and her plan to legalize marijuana. Widespread support for her following this announcement pushed current Governor Cuomo to relent on his anti-marijuana stance, and pledge to “make a decision based on the facts.”
While marijuana is still policed in New York, we wait to see what “overhaul and reform” will mean for the NYPD.
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