Last week there was much rejoicing when Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, flanked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, came out in support of ending the practice of arresting individuals for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view.
The details here are very important. These arrests come in consequence of stop-and-frisk police powers — used across the country — otherwise known as a Terry stop (OK'd by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968) under which a cop may briefly detain a person upon reasonable suspicion of involvement in a crime but short of probable cause to arrest. When a search for weapons is also authorized, the procedure is known as a stop-and-frisk.
In the Bloomberg years in New York City, stop-and-frisks have gone through the roof. In 2002, when Bloomberg had only just stepped into the Mayor's office, 97,296 New Yorkers were stopped by the police under stop and frisk. Out of those, 80,176 were totally innocent, 82 percent.
By 2009, 581,168 New Yorkers were stopped by the police. Of those, 510,742 were totally innocent; 310,611 were black, 55 percent; ?180,055 were Latino, 32 percent; ?53,601 were white, 10 percent; ?289,602 were aged 14-24, 50 percent. For reference, according to the Census Bureau, there were about only 300,000 black men between the ages of 13 and 34 living in the city that year.
In 2011, the police stopped 685,724 New Yorkers. ?Of those, 605,328 were totally innocent, 88 percent; ?350,743 were black, 53 percent; ?223,740 were Latino, 34 percent; ?61,805 were white, 9 percent; ?341,581 were aged 14-24, 51 percent).
There are continued protests about New York City's racist application of an already essentially racist law. Last week the New York Civil Liberties Union unveiled "Stop and Frisk Watch" — a free and innovative smartphone application that will enable New Yorkers to monitor police activity and hold the New York Police Department accountable for unlawful stop-and-frisk encounters and other police misconduct. But last week no public official was talking about stop and frisk. They were addressing the issue of what happens after the initiation of stop and frisk, when the person "complies" with an NYPD officer's directive to "empty their pockets." If up to 25 grams of marijuana stays out of view, that constitutes only a violation. If the cop forces the weed into public view, we're looking at a misdemeanor, with potentially devastating career consequences for the target. Low-level arrests for possession of marijuana in New York have gone up from about 2,000 in 1990 to 50,684 arrests in 2011, more than for any other offense, according to an analysis of state data by Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College, cited in the New York Times.
From 2002 to 2011, New York City recorded 400,000 low-level marijuana arrests, according to Levine's analysis. That represented more arrests than under Bloomberg's three predecessors put together — a period of 24 years. Most of those arrested have been young black and Hispanic men, and most had no prior criminal convictions.
Cuomo is proposing that 25 grams or less of marijuana in public view will, if his bill passes the New York legislature, constitute only a violation, no longer a misdemeanor. Will the bill pass? The Democrats control the Assembly in New York. Late last week New York Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos announced his opposition to Gov. Cuomo's proposal to standardize penalties for marijuana possession offenses in New York. Skelos told The New York Times that, "Being able to just walk around with 10 joints in each ear and it only be a violation, I think that's wrong." Just kidding, maybe. Perhaps the fix is in.
Obviously, anything that crimps the cops' lawless actions is good. Maybe there are future Obamas who will be able to keep a misdemeanor off their record. But let's retain our sense of reality. "Together, we are making New York fairer and safer, and ensuring that every New Yorker has access to a justice system that doesn't discriminate based on age or color," said Cuomo last week. Doesn't discriminate? In the first three months of 2012, the police stopped 203,500 New Yorkers. ?Commissioner Kelly obviously didn't feel he faced a mutiny by his men, an inventive lot when it comes to construing the law. Don't forget. Drug policy in the U.S. is about social control. That's the name of the game.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.