Bratton and de Blasio Announce NYPD Shift Away From Small Marijuana Arrests

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton today announced their intentions to stop arresting New Yorkers for low-level marijuana offenses.

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton holds up a bag of oregano to demonstrate what 25 grams of marijuana looks like at a news conference to announce changes to New York's marijuana policy.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton holds up a bag of oregano to demonstrate what 25 grams of marijuana looks like at a news conference to announce changes to New York’s marijuana policy. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) Photo: Spencer Platt for Getty Images

New Yorkers will no longer necessarily be arrested for low-level marijuana offenses, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner Bill Bratton said today, announcing that in many cases of possession of the drug, police can write a summons instead.

“Persons found to be in possession of this amount of marijuana, 25 grams or less, may be eligible to receive a summons,” Mr. Bratton said today of a new policy outlined in an operations order issued today and taking effect on November 19.

Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Bratton both worked to frame the policy shift as good for residents of the city — many have argued small-time pot arrests needlessly hinder the future of young people and disproportionately target blacks and Hispanics — and good for its cops, too.

“This policy will allow officers, in a case where do find it appropriate to give a summons, to continue on with their work and to be able to put, therefore, more time and energy into fighting more serious rime — rather than get bogged down with the time and energy necessary for an unproductive arrest,” Mr. de Blasio said.

But don’t get ready to light up in public — Mr. Bratton said the policy change won’t allow for public consumption of marijuana:  “Persons who are burning and or smoking marijuana in public will still be subject to arrest.”

A misdemeanor arrest for marijuana possession, which happen more often to young people of color, can hurt their chances of getting a job or qualifying for student loans.

“It can literally follow them for the rest of their lives and saddle young people with challenges that for many are very difficult to overcome,” Mr. de Blasio said.

But even with the policy change, Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Bratton said officers will have the discretion to an opt for an arrest in certain cases — such if the person is possession of the drug near a playground or school. Likewise, officers would still be advised to arrest someone who is the subject of an active warrant, or detain someone being sought on probable cause in another investigation or who could not produce identification in a “reasonable amount of time,” Mr. Bratton said.

“An officer ultimately has to make the judgement on the scene — they have to decide whether there’s some other telltale signs that the individual may be in involved in some other, more dangerous, activities,” Mr. de Blasio said.

The policy shift follows a similar one rolled out by former Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who sought to put an end to the practice of police officers asking people to empty their pockets — and then, when they did and took out marijuana, arresting them for possessing the drug in plain view.

“That began that precipitous decline,” in marijuana arrest over the last few years, Mr. Bratton said. “If the officer, in the course of a lawful search, finds marijuana, then he certainly is in a position to actually charge for that.”

Now, barring other issues, finding that marijuana in a lawful search will lead to a summons — a violation, rather than a crime.

The NYPD’s shift comes after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced this summer he would not prosecute minor marijuana offenses — something Mr. Bratton said at the time would have no effect on citywide marijuana policies.

Today, Mr. Bratton said the policy will mean real benefits for his department — and for the city’s five district attorneys, who will no longer be bogged down by the cases in court.

“I save an awful lot of arrest processing time for an offense that, when it gets people and a prosecutor in front of a judge, oftentimes nothing happens,” Mr. Bratton said. “Meantime, I’m also paying overtime costs for an officer to be in court while that is occurring.”

The news was met with an outpouring of support from some advocates and local elected officials. But police unions — with whom Mr. Bratton said he met before rolling out the new policy today — have not been so kind. That’s not unexpected, after months of tension between union leaders and the mayor (and by extension, Mr. Bratton).

“This will be the policy of the New York City Police Department. It will be complied with. If there is disagreement, fine, but there will be no not-enforcing-it,” Mr. Bratton said of rank-and-file cops.

Patrolman’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch accused City Hall of continuing to “surrender and change the policies of the NYPD.”

“Writing a summons to someone who does not respect the law can result in a volatile situation,” Mr. Lynch said in a statement. “Police officers always have to be on guard for violent reaction and resistance which can put them in danger of physical harm and potential disciplinary charges.”

But Mr. Bratton said an arrest can also result in a volatile situation: “Diminishing the action we’re taking, might actually, if you will, take the steam out of the situation.”

Some have questioned whether the directive will actually do anything to change the fact that blacks and Hispanics are more often targeted for marijuana enforcement than their white peers — noting that minorities could be disproportionately impacted by summonses, just as they are by arrests.

“You will see fewer unnecessary arrests. It will be good for New York City as a whole. It will certainly be good for New Yorkers of color, and particularly for young people of color, there’s no question about that,” Mr. de Blasio said. “A summons is not going to affect their future — an arrest could.”

It’s unclear how many New Yorkers might be spared arrest, as the NYPD does not classify arrests of those displaying marijuana differently from those burning it. So far this year, the department has made 24,081 arrests of marijuana possession, Mr. Bratton said.

This story has been updated with additional information from the press conference held by the mayor and commissioner.

Bratton and de Blasio Announce NYPD Shift Away From Small Marijuana Arrests