NEW YORK (AP) — Minor marijuana arrests in New York City have plunged in recent years amid questions about police tactics. But new statistics show the arrests dropped more modestly in the first three months of a new mayoral administration that has pledged to reduce them.
Arrests for the lowest-level marijuana crime fell 34 percent in the first quarter of 2013 — and 9 percent in the first quarter of this year, to roughly 7,000, according to state Division of Criminal Justice Services data obtained by The Associated Press. Both comparisons are to the same period in the previous years.
Police Commissioner William Bratton recently said the department is "attempting to use a lot more discretion" and decreasing the arrests, which Mayor Bill de Blasio decried during his campaign last year.
But activists pushing drug law reforms say this year's numbers show that problematic police practices continue. They call the arrests racially disproportionate and too prevalent in a city where possessing small amounts of pot was partly decriminalized almost 40 years ago.
"The fact that there's a small drop isn't that significant, in that we know that these arrests are still going on in ways that they shouldn't be," said Gabriel Sayegh, the Drug Policy Alliance's New York director.
The mayor's office and police department didn't immediately respond to inquiries about the new figures. Bratton has said he's discussing the issue with Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson and others in recent weeks. They are working toward "uniform, better, and fairer" ways to handle the arrests, a spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said.
Since 1977, New York state has considered possession of less than 25 grams (about 7/8 of an ounce) a non-criminal violation akin to a traffic ticket — unless the drug is "open to public view." In those cases, it's a misdemeanor, spurring an arrest record and potentially three months in jail, though many cases get dismissed if defendants avoid rearrest.
The arrests averaged about 2,100 a year from 1978 through 1995, but more than 36,700 per year from 1996 through 2011. Federal data show marijuana use nationwide has risen, but far less dramatically, during the last decade.
After the arrests — and outcry — hit a high in 2011, the arrests plummeted from about 50,700 then to 28,600 last year.
Critics have long asserted that New York City police illegally search people or get them to empty their pockets to generate a "public view" arrest. Officers were reminded in September 2011 that they couldn't induce people to bring the drug out, though police officials said there was no indication of dubious marijuana arrests.
Anthony Shelborne says there still is.
He was arrested in Harlem in February after officers said they saw him holding marijuana in public view and then took a bag of pot from his "waist area," according to a court complaint. Shelborne says the weed wasn't in the open until police pulled it from his underwear, and he's fighting the charge.
"I don't know what made them stop us in the first place," says Shelborne, who was arrested with a friend.
The marijuana arrests have risen and fallen alongside city police use of stop and frisk. And like those stopped and frisked, the vast majority of marijuana arrestees are black and Hispanic — 86 percent in the first quarter of 2014, according to an analysis of state data by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine.
As a candidate, de Blasio cited the racial breakdown in pledging to reduce the arrests. He backed a 2012 proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to decriminalize possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana even if publicly visible, but it is stalled in the state Legislature.
Associated Press writer Jake Pearson contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.