Crime & Courts

Charlotte mayor ‘deeply troubled’ over racial disparity in marijuana arrests

In cases of marijuana possession, police in Charlotte arrest – rather than ticket – blacks more often than whites.
In cases of marijuana possession, police in Charlotte arrest – rather than ticket – blacks more often than whites. AP

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said Monday she is “deeply troubled” by a racial disparity in arrests for small amounts of marijuana.

Roberts, a Democrat elected in November, said she plans to talk about the issue with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Kerr Putney after an Observer story Sunday revealed the disparity. Putney has said the department doesn’t discriminate.

“I am deeply troubled about the racial disparities in arrests,” Roberts said. “I look forward to discussing with our police chief how we ensure that everyone is being treated equally under the law.”

In an interview Monday, Putney said he and his department “have to be concerned with disproportionality” and added that, personally, he “doesn’t like the outcomes.”

But, he added, “I don’t think racism is indeed the reason we are having these contacts (between police and people possessing marijuana).”

For the smallest marijuana possession cases – involving less than a half ounce – police can write a citation or make an arrest. CMPD doesn’t have a policy on what officers should do.

Over the past several years, police have been writing more citations and making fewer pot arrests. That trend has affected all racial groups, including African-Americans.

But in cases involving only marijuana possession, African-Americans are far more likely to be arrested than whites.

In the last two years, 26 percent of African-Americans charged with possessing less than a half ounce of pot were arrested. During the same time period, 9 percent of whites were arrested.

The Observer reviewed cases in which suspects were charged only with possessing marijuana and no other offenses.

Putney said several factors can drive the difference between a ticket and an arrest. Customer service, he said, plays a role in police officers’ work.

“Let’s say there is an elderly lady who calls and says there are people on the street corner (causing a disturbance),” Putney said. “We have to do something.”

He said that if officers find marijuana and only write citations, the crowd may disperse momentarily and then regroup. Or they may not leave at all.

If that happens, police haven’t done their job, he said.

Putney also said some officers may lean toward making an arrest in part because they are able to more fully document their interaction with a suspect. That would help protect an officer later accused of misconduct, he said. “The lack of trust in the minority community is palpable,” he said.

Putney also said criminal history can affect the decision to pick arrest over citation.

Putney said his officers are also giving more people verbal warnings, something that they aren’t able to quantify.

“What I’m happy to say is they are being arrested less and cited more,” Putney said. “They are engaging in opportunities to let people leave with a verbal warning. We can’t quantify that.”

Putney said CMPD also sends more African-Americans than any other group into diversion programs, in which first-time drug offenders can have their records cleaned if they participate in state-approved drug-education classes.

Some elected officials were more cautious than Roberts in their response. They expressed concern but said CMPD may have valid reasons for the arrests.

“The chief has mentioned before that when you have a higher number of service calls, you will have a higher rate of arrests,” said at-large council member Julie Eiselt, who chairs the city’s public safety committee. “The question is, ‘What else are (the people who were arrested doing)?’ You can find cases that aren’t just, but is this widespread?”

Council member Al Austin represents District 2, which includes some areas in northwest Charlotte that struggle with crime. Last year, Austin and former CMPD chief Rodney Monroe discussed creating so-called “public safety zones” in which people who have been arrested would be prohibited from entering. The idea was dropped.

Austin said last week the disparity between the races could be due to residents calling police, requesting that they curtail drug crime. That’s one of his top priorities as a council member, he said.

Austin said he is concerned about the impact of the criminal justice system on African-Americans.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs