Black aldermen like increase in pot tickets, but one drug expert shrugs

SHARE Black aldermen like increase in pot tickets, but one drug expert shrugs
SHARE Black aldermen like increase in pot tickets, but one drug expert shrugs

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel fights for his political life against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, black aldermen praised him Wednesday for pushing police officers to write more marijuana tickets last year, erasing the racial gap in ticketing.

But one drug policy expert remained unimpressed with what she sees as slow progress.

Chicago Police officers made 3,000 fewer arrests for possession of small amounts of pot last year and wrote nearly 3,000 more tickets while eliminating a disparate impact on African-Americans and Hispanics, according to the city.

Desperate to appeal to black voters who will decide the April 7 runoff, Emanuel is touting the numbers to demonstrate he’s sensitive to their concerns. They show policy changes made last fall by police Supt. Garry McCarthy nearly quadrupled the number of tickets — from 1,074 citations in 2013 to 4,032 last year. During the same period, arrests dropped from 14,374 in 2013 to 11,088.

According to the city, whites busted last year for possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana were ticketed in 29 percent of their cases and arrested in the other 71 percent. Blacks were ticketed in 27 percent of their cases and arrested in the other 73 percent. Hispanics were ticketed in 24 percent of their cases and arrested in the other 76 percent.

In 2013, whites received more than twice as many tickets as blacks and Hispanics.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said the statistics should help Emanuel in his appeal to black voters alienated by the mayor’s decision to close a record 50 public schools.

“This shows there is not disparate treatment between African-Americans and others in society,” Brookins said. “It shows the superintendent and others in command of the police department are talking to their officers about being sensitive about how they treat different people they pull over.”

Still, the combined number of tickets and arrests for possession of small amounts of pot remained about the same in 2013 and 2014 — with more than 15,000 incidents in each year.

“The overall contact with police [for minor pot possession] isn’t changing,” said Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. “That’s a problem.”

The city’s nearly 3-1 ratio of arrests to tickets in 2014 didn’t excite Kane-Willis, either.

“It’s progress in the right direction,” she said. “But Chicago has ranked poorly in implementing this as compared to other places.”

Evanston saw a 50 percent drop in pot arrests in the first year of a similar ticketing policy, she said.

Martin Maloney, spokesman for the Chicago Police, said arrests for small amounts of pot are deemed appropriate in certain situations.

Most frequently, people are arrested for petty marijuana possession when they’re facing other serious charges such as gun possession, Maloney said. Pot possession at a school or park requires an arrest, but that happens far less often, he said.

“The goal is to make sure the ordinance is implemented fairly and consistently without jeopardizing public safety,” Maloney said.

The number of pot tickets jumped last year after Emanuel allowed cops to issue tickets to people who can’t produce an official identification card.

“Situations were reviewed on a weekly basis to show where a ticket was or could be more appropriate than an arrest, and this practice also reinforced to all commanders the newly implemented policies to issue tickets to individuals who cannot produce a government-issued ID,” Maloney said.

Like the red-light cameras that have emerged as a major issue in the mayoral campaign, black and Hispanic aldermen have long contended their constituents have been unfairly targeted for marijuana tickets and arrests.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who was sporting an Emanuel campaign button Wednesday, applauded the mayor for the rise in pot tickets.

“That’s great that they’ve added more tickets and they’re doing [fewer] arrests. That’s what we voted on. They’re listening to the people,” said Burnett, whose ward stretches from the predominately white Near North Side to the predominately black West Side.

Last fall, Emanuel asked reluctant state lawmakers to soften Illinois’ war on drugs to let nonviolent offenders off the hook and free police officers to focus on more serious crimes. He wanted the General Assembly to decriminalize possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana and reduce from a felony to a misdemeanor the penalty for possession of 1 gram or less of any controlled substance.

The mayor’s plan went nowhere. Some lawmakers viewed it as a ploy to resurrect his plan to impose mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes that was shot down by the Legislature’s Black Caucus. Others characterized it as a maneuver to appease black voters and undercut the progressive base of his strongest challengers.

After a Jan. 30 debate before the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, Garcia suggested legalizing and taxing marijuana. “If it doesn’t produce any harms to people in the state of Colorado, and if they’re able to generate revenue, we shouldn’t rule it out,” Garcia said then.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis made the same suggestion before dropping out of the mayor’s race after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Lewis persuaded Garcia to take her place.

But Emanuel has ridiculed the idea of legalizing and taxing marijuana.

“I do not think you should balance the budget by promoting recreational smoking of pot,” Emanuel said after Lewis proposed the idea.

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