“Stop and Frisk” Policies in New York Questioned

By Tony O'Neill 06/17/11

Are “random” drug frisks aimed at young blacks and Latinos?

Is the NYPD too frisky?
Photo via thinkstockphotos

New York City, as we all know, has many things to be proud of—the Empire State Building, world class art galleries and museums, and some of the best restaurants in the world. But it also has another, rather dubious distinction: the highest per-capita arrest rate for marijuana in America. And wouldn’t you know it, despite the fact that white males are statistically more likely to smoke marijuana, the vast majority of those arrested are young blacks and Latinos who are grabbed in “random” stop and frisk encounters.  Here at The Fix we were utterly astonished to hear that there might actually be a racial component to drug arrest figures, but we were cheered a bit by the news of a campaign being launched to even the playing field.
A series of “Know Your Rights, Build Your Future” workshops designed to educate young people about their legal rights were recently launched in the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem. According to the recent “Up In Smoke” report by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives (IJJRA), the NYPD spends $75 million per year arresting people for minor amounts of marijuana.  And this despite the fact that, since 1977, a ticket or a small fine has been the norm if you happen to carry 7/8 of an ounce of marijuana for personal use in NY. So why all the arrests? For one thing, writes Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance, many officers are wholly unaware of the 1977 law, as evidenced by his precinct-level meetings with them. (The Alliance has requested meetings with the NYPD’s higher-ups, but has so far been ignored).

Here’s how it goes down: If your weed is judged to be “in public view,” then it becomes a misdemeanor—which can result in arrest, fines and even a three-month prison sentence, says Sayegh. The Drug Policy Alliance contends that when the police stop someone they deem to be “suspicious” and demand that they empty their pockets, any uncovered marijuana is automatically judged to be in public view, resulting in the staggeringly disproportionate statistics.
"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," writes 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?”

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.