Bonfield: DPD has to explain pot-arrest racial disparity

Aug. 19, 2014 @ 04:16 PM

City Manager Tom Bonfield wants the Durham Police Department to explain why the officers who made misdemeanor marijuana arrests over an 18-month stretch targeted blacks 86 percent of the time.
Addressing the issue in a report to the City Council on police matters, Bonfield signaled that he’ll ask the department to look into the “unexplained racial disparity” and relay its findings to him by the end of the year.
The analysis should detail whether the arrests resulted from traffic stops or occurred in buildings, and whether they were the fruits of by-permission or probable-cause-based searches, the manager said.
It should also break down the type of any transaction that may have been involved, and group the busts by arresting officer, all to see “if patterns can be discerned to better explain the apparent disparities,” Bonfield said.
The manager was referring to the Police Department’s misdemeanor marijuana arrest record from Jan. 1, 2013, to July 1 of this year. In that time, it recorded 768 such arrests. Whites were the target a bit less 14 percent of the time.
He added that the Police Department should, by policy, require annual reviews of its marijuana arrests to look for disparities.
Bonfield’s report – a 131-page document responding to the recommendations of two city advisory boards – noted that city police make marijuana-possession arrests less often than their peers across the country or even in other major North Carolina cities.
It also acknowledged that a marijuana arrest in North Carolina most often will leave the target with a criminal record that can have “negative impacts” on them, employment-wise and in other ways.
The racial disparity in the arrest figures, however, is “a more significant cause for concern” than that, he said.
The manager’s report, and the recommendations of the city’s Human Relations Commission, addressed marijuana arrests because the FADE Coalition and other activist groups have urged officials to make pot-possession laws their lowest law-enforcement priority.
The Human Relations Commission stopped short of endorsing that, but it did urge officials to reach out to colleagues in places like Seattle to learn how they deal with the issue.
Bonfield noted that Seattle is no longer an apt role model for Durham on that front, as Washington state has essentially legalized marijuana possession. North Carolina has not.
He said his discussions with the advocacy groups showed that even they have “varied interpretations” of what a low-priority enforcement regime would look like.
The manager added that he believes to make any such decision about priorities stick, the city would need to convince Durham’s district attorney, judges and sheriff to go along.
Absent such a meeting of the minds, a directive from city administrators or the City Council is unlikely to work, he said.
Bonfield’s mention of that point indirectly acknowledged that Durham’s police share jurisdiction in the city with several other law enforcement agencies.
By state law, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office has enforcement and arrest powers everywhere in Durham County, including inside the city limits.
City police have jurisdiction everywhere inside the city limits, which don’t take in the portions of Chapel Hill and Raleigh that reach into Durham County.
Two campus police departments, one for Duke University and another for N.C. Central University, have non-exclusive enforcement powers on the property of their respective colleges.
Several state police agencies also have jurisdiction throughout the county, including inside the city limits.
City Attorney Patrick Baker’s staff also weighed in, saying that while local authorities can set their own law-enforcement priorities, they likely can’t go so far as “simply not enforcing” the existing state and federal restrictions on marijuana.
Bonfield’s report is available on the Web at http://bit.ly/1v9LC6H. He is scheduled to brief the City Council on it on Thursday.