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‘Progress’ or bias? A deeper dive into Chicago pot enforcement numbers

The Emanuel administration has touted as a sign of “progress” statistics showing that the percentage of arrests to tickets was about the same for blacks, Hispanics and whites in 2014.

But a deeper dive into the numbers tells a more complex story, one that’s raising a question among some critics of how much progress is actually being made.

When you look at the raw numbers, blacks were busted 16 times more than whites for small amounts of pot in 2014 — including tickets and arrests. And for every white Chicagoan busted for marijuana, four Hispanics were busted, according to police statistics. Those stats come despite the fact that white Chicagoans outnumber both black and Hispanic Chicagoans by a ratio of approximately 3-to-2.


Last week, though, Emanuel’s administration put the focus on the percentage of arrests to tickets that was about the same for blacks, Hispanics and whites in 2014 — calling it “progress.”

Several aldermen, including Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, reacted positively to that news, saying it was evidence of the police treating African-Americans more fairly.

But Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, said the overall pot enforcement totals actually show a continuing racial bias in policing.

“To me, this speaks to two Chicagos that exist, one for the black and brown people and one for wealthy white people,” she said.

Marty Maloney, a spokesman for the police department, responded that the top six police districts for marijuana enforcement are also the top six districts for 911 calls about narcotics crimes.

And all of those districts are predominately African-American.

“In neighborhoods where there are more calls to police from residents complaining about narcotics sales or narcotics loitering, there are higher levels of enforcement,” he said.

More than a quarter of the arrests in 2014 were mandated because the offender was committing another crime, Maloney added.

But Kane-Willis believes most of the pot arrests are spinoffs of 911 calls about more serious crimes like heroin and drug sales in open-air markets. She thinks cops are going on those heroin and cocaine calls, frisking people at the scene and finding petty amounts of pot in their pockets.

“Why make all these [pot] arrests when you acknowledge they take away officers’ time on more serious crimes?” she asked.

Kane-Willis noted that Cook County had the biggest racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests among the 25 most populous counties in the nation in 2010, according to FBI data and census statistics.

“There’s been marginal progress here, but it’s still unfair and unjust,” she said.

Only a state law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot would end the racial disparities in the numbers of people busted for having marijuana, Kane-Willis said.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who is running for mayor against Emanuel, declined to comment on the raw numbers of arrest and the disparities.

Charlene Carruthers of Black Youth Project 100, a Chicago-based group of activists ages 18 to 35, said she doesn’t think arresting people for small amounts of pot is keeping the city safer.

“It’s hyper-surveillance and harassment for what shouldn’t even be an offense. No one should be arrested for having 15 grams of marijuana or less. Even the cost of a ticket could throw someone into a very difficult situation,” Carruthers said of the citations, which run $250 to $500.

Carruthers, the national director of Black Youth Project 100, said the group has expressed its concerns to Ald. Danny Solis (25th), sponsor of the city’s pot ticketing ordinance and to police officials.

Chicago cops started writing pot tickets in 2012 when Emanuel pushed the City Council to approve an ordinance that would allow officers to issue citations for possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana. Police retained the option of arresting people on a misdemeanor possession charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine.

In 2013, cops issued 1,074 citations, compared with 4,032 last year. Meantime, arrests dropped from 14,374 in 2013 to 11,088 last year.

The number of tickets rose in 2014 partly because last year the department allowed officers to write tickets to people who don’t have a government-issued identification card.

According to police statistics, once they were stopped by police, whites were twice as likely as blacks or Hispanics to get a ticket in 2013. But in 2014, that racial gap narrowed. Whites received tickets in 29 percent of their pot cases, blacks were ticketed in 27 percent of their cases and Hispanics in 24 percent of their cases, according to police statistics.