700,000 Pot Arrests Explained

Harry Levine, a Queens College sociology professor who calls this country’s massive law enforcement spending and incarceration rates for marijuana a national disgrace, does an interview with New Inquiry and explains why there are so many such arrests.

Police make so many because they are easy arrests and because significant constituencies within police departments benefit from the arrests. Police work can be dangerous. Ordinary patrol and narcotics police like the marijuana arrests because they are relatively safe and easy. If an officer stops and searches 10 or 15 young people, one or two of them will likely have a bit of marijuana. All police have arrest quotas and often they can earn much-desired overtime pay by making a marijuana arrest toward the end of a shift. In New York City, arresting people for petty offenses for overtime pay is called “collars for dollars.” Every cop in the city knows that expression. From the officers’ point of view, people possessing marijuana are highly desirable arrestees. As one veteran lieutenant said, people whose only crime is marijuana possession are “clean,” meaning physically clean. Unlike junkies or winos, people arrested for marijuana don’t have HIV, hepatitis, or even body lice. They are unlikely to throw up on the officer or in the police car or van. Frequently they are on the way to a party or a date, and if they have smoked a little, they may be relaxed and amiable. Marijuana arrests are a quality of life issue – for the police.

Police supervisors at all levels also like the marijuana arrests for many reasons. The arrests show productivity and the written records demonstrate where the cops they supervise have been. Some supervisors make overtime pay when the officers under them make overtime. Making many low-level arrests of all kinds is very good for training rookie police who gain valuable experience doing many stops and searches of teenagers. If new officers screw up the paperwork or fingerprints on a pot arrest, it doesn’t matter because nobody really cares about the arrests. Also, police commanders can temporarily reassign officers making misdemeanor arrests if a crisis comes up – a fire or car wreck, the president is in town, there’s a riot or a big parade – and no investigation is affected, no crime spikes. This “reserve army” of police making many misdemeanor arrests keeps the cops busy, provides records of their whereabouts, and gives commanders substantial flexibility. There is also a push nationally, to states, counties, and city police departments, to get as many new people as possible into the criminal databases. There is nothing else police do that gets so many young people without criminal records into the criminal databases.

Finally, through Bryne Grants, a “war on drugs” program begun under Bush Senior and Clinton, and through other federal grants, the U.S. government gives states and police departments funding to buy things they want and need: cars, computers, cameras, overtime, anything. And local law enforcement can use their “drug arrests” — including the many marijuana possession arrests — as evidence of productivity for the grants. In effect, the U.S. government has been subsidizing the arrests and jailings of hundreds of thousands of young blacks, Latinos, and whites.

But in reality, it’s rarely white people being arrested:

In New York City, nearly 90 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession are blacks and Latinos. In Chicago in recent years, only five percent of the people arrested for possession were whites. In many cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, police have arrested blacks for marijuana possession at seven times the rate of whites, and Latinos at three to four times the rate of whites. In Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn, where 90 percent of the residents are blacks and Latinos, the marijuana arrest rate is 150 times higher than on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where Mayor Bloomberg lives where the 90 percent of residents are white.

Years of federal studies have found that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks or Latinos, but the young people of color are far more likely to be stopped, frisked and searched by police than young whites. As New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer titled one of his pieces, “Whites Smoke Pot, But Blacks Are Arrested.”

Middle-class and upper-class white people, on the other hand, are rarely arrested for marijuana possession. The places nationally with the lowest rates of possession arrests are wealthy, white, suburban counties. Middle- and upper-class white people do not want their children arrested, jailed, and saddled with permanent criminal records – and by and large they have the power to prevent that. They also rarely get summonses, have to appear in court, and pay hundreds of dollars in fines and court costs for possessing small amounts of marijuana. For middle-class and upper-class people, the policy has long been: no arrests, no tickets, no fines. It is scandalous that the law is applied so differently against low income families and neighborhoods, and for people of color.

Scandalous doesn’t even begin to cover it. A disgrace is exactly what it is.

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  • So, basically you’re saying, “let Whitey carry”?

  • Woof

    Can we just start over somewhere, somehow?

    This society is all kinds of fucked up, and I don’t see any way out. Outside an actual revolution, that is, and if that should fail things will only get WORSE.

    I’m starting to feel like USAF Gen Jack D Ripper.

  • Ben P

    A couple things jumped out at me.

    All police have arrest quotas

    True in fact, but also misleading. Police rarely to almost never have true “quotas” as in “you have to arrest 3 people today.” What they do have, like everyone almost everyone else with a job, is productivity metrics. That is, they have to have some way of proving what they’ve done all day.

    Typical patrol officer smith may go to work and be on patrol from 6am to 4pm. During that time he’s operating mostly autonomously. He will respond to some calls, but for a large part of the day he’s just driving around looking for speeders, street crime, etc.

    At the end of the day he has to write up and turn in reports of what he did all day. It’s very unlikely they’ll have a written quota for tickets, but if his reports day after day just say “patrolled areas XYZ, no arrests,” his supervisors will start questioning whether he’s working hard. Importantly, with the departments I’m familiar with, they count warnings, stops, etc the same as tickets, so there’s no particular incentive for the officer to write tickets over just stops. But on the other hand, fines fill out the department’s budget, and officers’ everywhere know that certain moneymaker cases (traffic tickets, DWI’s, drug possessions etc. – cases with fines and people able to pay them) mean more fancy equipment for the department. So there is definitely an underlying incentive.

    All this adds up to basically the point of the article to begin with. There’s rarely any express command to go out and hassle black kids for pot, but lots of structural incentives to do things a certain way. And shockingly, people respond to incentives.

  • machintelligence

    Which leaves the interesting question: what are they going to do when marijuana is legalized?

  • bybelknap

    As Commander Vimes is quick to point out, “everyone is guilty of something.” Cops will just find other minor, petty things to harass not-white people about.

  • DaveL

    There’s rarely any express command to go out and hassle black kids for pot

    Rarely, perhaps, but not never.

  • Ben P

    Rarely, perhaps, but not never.

    I was actually thinking of just that when I wrote rarely.

    Here’s how I’ll describe that. It’s the thing that the system drives cops to do, but very few are stupid enough to say it out loud.

    it’s a bit like Lawyer’s padding a legal bill

    Biglaw firms like that explicitly seek out matters and clients that are, as they term them “fee insensitive.” That means they want a client that when that client gets a $500,000 legal bill they don’t have a heart attack, they think “gee, I must have thorough lawyers.”

    Then those firms assign 6 or 8 or 10 lawyers to a case that really could be done by 3, start with the most junior lawyers doing work that will be reviewed and re-written by 2-3 other lawyers on its way up the chain, and explicitly work to limit contact between the worker bees and the partner whose job is to keep the client happy. In short, the entire system is designed to rack up as many billable hours as possible.

    Every lawyer who’s worked in that environment knows that lawyers churn bills, but you’re not supposed to be stupid enough to say it out loud.

  • martinc

    I wonder if Harry Levine’s colleagues call him ‘Harry Potter’?