Mayor de Blasio, facing increasing pressure over the racial gap in marijuana arrests, pledged an overhaul to reduce arrests Tuesday — as the Manhattan district attorney announced he would stop prosecuting many pot cases.
Hizzoner and the NYPD have taken a torrent of criticism over pot arrests targeting blacks and Latinos — most recently from Rev. Al Sharpton and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who held a City Hall press conference to blast the department Tuesday.
In a speech to progressive groups in Washington, D.C., de Blasio said the NYPD would “overhaul and reform” its marijuana policies in the next 30 days, but did not provide details.
The NYPD currently arrests people they find smoking marijuana in public — and 86% of them are black and Latino.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said that starting on Aug. 1, he will decline to prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases. The change is expected to cut pot prosecutions in Manhattan from 5,000 a year to 200, a 96% drop.
The DA’s office said it would consider recommendations from the city for “limited” exceptions to the policy.
Vance found that punishments imposed after pot possession cases go to court are almost non-existent — yet the arrests themselves hurt people’s chances of getting a job or staying in the country if they are immigrants.
“The dual mission of the Manhattan DA’s office is a safer New York and a more equal justice system,” he said. “The ongoing arrest and criminal prosecution of predominantly black and brown New Yorkers for smoking marijuana serves neither of these goals.”
Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez already declines to prosecute many marijuana cases, and said Tuesday he will expand his policy in the coming weeks.
Bronx DA Darcel Clark did not go as far, but urged cops to give summonses instead of arrests.
Johnson, Sharpton and other Council members also called on cops to give summonses instead of arresting people caught smoking pot in public. They support making pot legal, but say the city should act before that happens.
“Right now, the way we handle marijuana in New York City is irrational, insane and unfair,” Johnson said.
Under a policy de Blasio put in place in his first year in office, the NYPD currently gives summonses when someone is found with marijuana in their possession, but not smoking it. That brought down the number of arrests significantly, but the racial gap persisted.
The department argued that was because they make arrests in neighborhoods where residents call to complain — but as the Daily News first reported, the NYPD’s data on 911 and 311 calls cast doubt on those claims. The neighborhoods with high numbers of calls and high numbers of arrests do not match up.
In his speech Tuesday, de Blasio promised changes were coming.
“The NYPD will overhaul and reform its policies related to marijuana enforcement within the next 30 days,” he said. “We must and we will end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement — it’s time for those to be a thing of the past, in New York City and all over this country.”
The NYPD said they had not yet developed a specific plan to change enforcement, and would spend the next month producing one.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill said the department was putting together a working group to review the policy.
“The NYPD does not target people based on race or other demographics,” O’Neill said, adding that officer observations and local complaints are among the reasons for arrests. “But there are differences in arrest rates, and they have persisted going back many years, long before this current administration. We need an honest assessment about why they exist, and balance it in the context of the public safety needs of all communities.”
“The NYPD has no interest in arresting New Yorkers for marijuana offenses when those arrests have no impact on public safety,” O’Neill added.
He said the working group would include a “diverse” number of police brass, who would consult with experts including advocacy groups and defense lawyers.
The Council did its own analysis of 311 and 911 call data and found it did not match up with arrests. Neighborhoods in southeast Queens, East Harlem and the south Bronx in particular had more arrests than would be predicted based on calls.
Red Hook in Brooklyn had 88 calls to 311 and 911, but 246 arrests. In contrast, the precinct covering Breezy Point and Rockaway Park had 113 calls, but only 22 arrests.
“The grandchild of stop and frisk is marijuana arrests based on race,” Sharpton said.
More and more Democrats in New York have thrown their support behind full legalization of marijuana, though de Blasio still opposes it.
The state Democratic Party expected to formally back legalization, and Gov. Cuomo, who has opposed it, said moves by surrounding states to legalize have changed the equation.
De Blasio began to shift his tone on the issue during an appearance on NY1 Monday night.
“We have to do better, there’s no question about it,” he said. “People have to feel, they have to see that policing is being applied consistently across all different kinds of communities.”
Sharpton said when pot becomes legal, black business people must have access to the market. Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon made the same argument, saying it would be a form of “reparations” — comments criticized by Sharpton and other black leaders.
Sharpton said he disagreed with the use of the term “reparations,” but agreed with the overall point.
“We can’t be the ones who filled up Rikers Island, and they be the ones to fill up the bank if it is legalized,” he said.
With Jillian Jorgensen
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