Despite a statewide effort to highlight and end what many call a disturbing racial disparity, blacks in Pasadena are still being arrested for marijuana possession at far higher rates than whites or Latinos, the Pasadena Weekly has learned.
But after an October 2009 investigation in this newspaper revealed that demographic-defying disparity, blacks now make up a slightly smaller percentage of those arrested for pot, a signal to community leaders that police have altered tactics to reduce what was seen as indiscriminate targeting of blacks for a relatively minor offense that can jeopardize educational and job prospects.
In the 10-month period ending in August 2010, the most recent period for which data is available, blacks accounted for 43 percent of nearly 500 misdemeanor marijuana arrests, though they represent only 11.5 percent of the city’s population. From 2004 to 2008, blacks accounted for 51 percent of misdemeanor marijuana arrests, giving Pasadena the one of the highest arrest rates for blacks in the state.
Whites account for 58 percent of Pasadena’s population and made up 19 percent of pot arrests in the 10-month span, up from 13 percent between 2004 and 2008. Arrests of Latinos, who make up one-third of the city’s population, were relatively unchanged, accounting for about 33 percent of arrests during both periods.
Joe Brown, president of the Pasadena branch of the NAACP, said the quick change was encouraging, given that the disparity persisted for so many years without the community’s knowledge. “Many people in the community took a look at those statistics and realized there was a problem,” he said.
Pasadena Police Cmdr. John Perez called the decline “positive,” but maintained that officers have not changed their tactics. “What we try to do is focus on what the problem is,” said Perez, adding that residents’ complaints help concentrate that focus. “If the problem is drug dealing, then that is what we focus on.”
When officers act to address quality-of-life issues, such as street racing or loitering, that can lead to such arrests when police confront those suspected of creating the problem, he said. “Sometimes they are stopped and they do have marijuana in their possession,” he said.
While hopeful about the shift in arrests, drug policy reform advocates worry it may be short lived. “It’s obviously heartening and a step in the right direction, but only multiple consecutive years will tell the real story of whether police practices have truly changed,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates reducing the harm of drugs instead of prohibition.
Further fueling concerns is that marijuana possession in California on Jan. 1 will be downgraded to an infraction, similar to a speeding ticket. “The mass sidewalk detentions and racial profiling that typify marijuana enforcement are likely to escalate now that law enforcement is no longer concerned about triggering court costs that were associated with misdemeanor arrests,” Gutwillig said.
Additionally, racial data is not collected for infractions, which will make it difficult to hold law enforcement accountable for future inequities, he said.
Root of the problem
When the disparity was first reported more than a year ago, community members and police officials struggled to explain why so many more blacks were being arrested for pot possession, especially since federal drug use surveys show marijuana usage rates to be almost identical among the races.
Former Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who retired from the department in November 2009 to take a job with the US Justice Department, insisted at the time that his officers did not target marijuana offenders, though marijuana arrests tripled under his watch, reaching a zenith of 707 in 2007. But Melekian did say an anti-violence campaign the department carried out may have inadvertently skewed the ethnicity data on who was arrested for pot.
The Drug Policy Alliance two months ago evaluated the rates of marijuana arrests for different races in 25 major cities in the state and ranked Pasadena second, with blacks being arrested at 12.5 percent the rate of whites. The study found similar disparities in every county in the state and in almost every law enforcement agency.
However, drug policy researchers stress that the racial disparity is not the product of racism or prejudice, but rather officers carrying out the job they were assigned to do.
Harry Levine, a sociology professor at New York’s Queens College who has researched the nexus of society, drugs, policing and policy for the past two decades, likens police enforcement of marijuana crimes to “racism without the racists,” noting that police are typically concentrated in high-crime areas that often have sizeable minority populations, forcing racially disparate arrest statistics.
While practically the lowest level of criminal offense, marijuana arrests, which continually make up half of all drug arrests nationwide, have a special niche within police departments, Levine said. They are relatively easy to make — marijuana offenders tend to be nonviolent — and the arrest figures allow officers to show supervisors they are being productive. “It doesn’t have to do with marijuana. It has to do with policing,” he said.
Brown agreed. “Sometimes our officers tend to look more favorable, or unfavorably, at one group over the other. What you look for is what you find,” he said.
Additionally, from sales to consumption, marijuana tends to be more public in ethnic communities, and that may also play into the disparate arrest figures, according to Levine.
After Sanchez took the helm at the department in July, Brown and others approached him about the disparity and were assured the chief would review the statistics to certify that ethnic groups were not being targeted, Brown said. Sanchez did not return calls for comment.
Perez said he hasn’t researched how many of those arrested for marijuana were also arrested for more serious offenses. “That’s the type of research we really have to get into,” he said.
Perez noted that serious crimes — murder, rape, robbery and assault, among them — are generally declining in Pasadena, as they are for most of the nation.
The harder they come
While a criminal charge will no longer haunt anyone arrested with less than one ounce of the herb after Jan. 1, offenders — minority offenders in particular — will still face challenges, Gutwillig said. Those ticketed will not be afforded a jury trial or a public defender, and they will be charged with a misdemeanor if they fail to pay the $100 fine. Additionally, that infraction will pop up on paid background checks. Employers, landlords, banks and credit agencies may not see much of a difference between a misdemeanor and an infraction when drugs are involved, “creating ongoing obstacles for young African Americans and Latinos who already face substantial challenges in employment and education,” Gutwillig said.
A year after this newspaper uncovered the racial disparity in Pasadena, the official documents that bear such data became surprisingly difficult to obtain. The California Attorney General’s Office, which routinely collects and analyzes arrest and ethnicity data police departments collect, will not be able to process and release 2010 arrest and ethnicity data until May 2011, officials said. This newspaper’s request for multiple years of that data was fulfilled in a matter of days a year ago. After initially providing incorrect documents, city of Pasadena officials handed over a heavily and largely unnecessarily redacted inch-and-a-half-thick ream of all arrests made in the city for 10 months beginning in October 2009.
Gutwillig expects it will be even harder, if not impossible, to obtain this information in the future. “The problem is that with the downgrading of marijuana possession to an infraction, that data will now hard to come by.”
By Jake Armstrong
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