New York police turn over a new leaf in drug war

Deal sealed: New York police boss Bill Bratton holds up a bag of oregano to show what 25 grams of ­marijuana looks like. People caught with this amount or less will no longer be arrested. (AFP)

Deal sealed: New York police boss Bill Bratton holds up a bag of oregano to show what 25 grams of ­marijuana looks like. People caught with this amount or less will no longer be arrested. (AFP)

The New York police department (NYPD), the largest in the United States, will stop arresting people in possession of small amounts of marijuana, in a marked policy change that mayor Bill de Blasio said reflects his campaign promise to repair frayed relations between police officers and the city’s minority communities.

Starting next week, NYPD officers will have the option to issue court summonses rather than arrest those caught with less than 25 grams of the drug, the mayor and the NYPD police commissioner William Bratton announced during a joint press conference this week.

“When an individual is arrested, even for the smallest possession of marijuana, it hurts their chances to get a good job; it hurts their chances to get housing; it hurts their chances to qualify for a student loan,” De Blasio said.

“It can literally follow them for the rest of their lives and saddle young people with challenges that for many are very, very difficult to overcome.”

Under the new policy, people caught smoking marijuana in public still face arrest. Other exceptions include those with outstanding arrest warrants and people who can’t provide proper identification, Bratton said. If a police officer decides to issue a summons, the person will be given a ticket to appear in court and sent on their way.
Officers will seize the marijuana and take it back to the station for processing.

The fine for a first offence will be $100, which can go up to $250 for a second offence. Bratton said official guidelines would be released on November 18 and the policy would come into effect the next day.

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The new policy is a sharp departure from the “broken windows” crime-fighting strategy Bratton champions: tough enforcement of low-level crimes to stop offenders from committing more serious ones in the future. But he said this week he welcomes the opportunity to direct more resources to fighting serious, violent crime.

The policy is expected to curb the tens of thousands of arrests for low-level marijuana possession the NYPD makes each year. Research shows such arrests disproportionately affect black and Latino residents, even though white residents are as likely to use marijuana.

In the first eight months of 2014, 86% of the people arrested for marijuana possession were blacks and Latinos, according to the Marijuana Arrest Research Project.

Civil liberty groups offered lukewarm praise of the new policy, but warned that court summonses will still entangle New Yorkers in the criminal justice system.

“We’re glad to see the consequences of a marijuana offence won’t include handcuffs and jail time,” said New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman. “But we’re still concerned that too many New Yorkers will become involved with the court system because of a small amount of marijuana. And because there is no required reporting on the demographics of who is issued summonses, we won’t be able to track the racial disparities that result from the new initiative.”

Court summonses do not require race or ethnicity reporting, so it will be difficult to identify who police are ticketing. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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