We want our criminal justice system to treat everyone fairly, regardless of race or socioeconomic background.
But as cellphone videos of our most egregious police shootings have shown, that doesn’t always happen. Even as such images have exposed injustices, they have also sparked deep mistrust of police practices, especially among minorities in low-income, high-crime areas.
That’s why local leaders must take a close, careful look at the statistics behind Observer reporter Steve Harrison’s report Sunday on low-level marijuana arrests over the past two years.
He found that 26 percent of blacks were arrested for marijuana posession, while 9 percent of whites were arrested. The others got citations.
It is worth noting that studies show blacks and whites use the drug at comparable rates.
There might be good explanations for the disparity – reasons having little to do with race. Perhaps, as police officials have suggested, the disparities come as officers make more arrests in high-crime areas. Perhaps, as Charlotte City Council member Al Austin has suggested, law-abiding citizens in those areas have pressed police for more arrests to combat street crime.
But in the Black Lives Matter era, trust between police and minority communities is more fragile than ever. These disparities must be dissected thoroughly and publicly by the police and by the city council. If the disparities can be traced to a focus on high-crime areas or other non-racial factors, Chief Kerr Putney should offer the statistical and geographic evidence, not just personal assurances of non-racial motives.
To their credit, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have been quietly shifting from making arrests to issuing citations in low-level marijuana possession cases. Arrests for such minor offenses often do more social harm than good. They saddle inner-city youth with criminal records that hinder them from getting decent jobs or the financial aid they need to pursue higher education.
But given how rapidly public attitudes toward marijuana usage are evolving – and given how strongly some citizens still feel about keeping tough penalties against it – police officials shouldn’t have made such an important shift without clear policy direction from city council and the mayor.
There apparently haven’t been any discussions about the recent changes in police department’s drug enforcement priorities. Those conversations must start. Officers should keep some discretion about when to arrest, but the council must supply broad policy frames to guide police work on this key issue.
If the council fears legislative backlash from Raleigh – a possibility council member Claire Fallon raised to the editorial board Tuesday – it should at least adopt a resolution clarifying the group’s position.