June 21, 2013

With the recent reports “The War on Marijuana in Black and White” and “Behind the D.C. Numbers,” the American Civil Liberties Union highlighted an important policy issue facing the nation. But in framing the discussion as police inflicting a war on drugs on the community, the organization missed an opportunity to have a valuable dialogue. As the chief of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), I am as interested in vibrant, healthy communities as I am in safe neighborhoods. And having large portions of the population hindered in finding gainful employment because of minor arrests weakens the fabric of our communities. Nevertheless, marijuana possession is a crime, and MPD officers are sworn to uphold the law.

When drawing broad conclusions and making generalizations, as the ACLU has done, it is vitally important to base them on fact. The organization’s report on the District claims that in 2010 “nearly all of the individuals arrested for possession of marijuana — 87 percent — were not charged with any other crime, which indicates that the stops that led to these marijuana arrests were not related to other illegal behavior, such as a property crime or an assault.” The correct figure is 54 percent, and the percentage has fallen in subsequent years to 50 percent in 2012 and 47 percent so far for 2013. Marijuana users are simply not being targeted in the manner suggested by the report. Given the extent to which the ACLU misconstrues the District’s data, there is little point in addressing the inappropriate comparisons it made between the District and states or counties.

The ACLU also appears not to understand our city very well. It is, indeed, a sad fact that blacks represent a disproportionate number of arrestees in the District; the proportions are similar for marijuana arrests, for other narcotics and all arrests. But this is a complex issue that cannot be boiled down to an allegation that MPD selectively enforces the law against our black communities. Without getting too far into race politics, just a little more information than what was provided by the ACLU sheds a different light.

The ACLU focused on the arrest rates for marijuana in Police Service Areas (PSA) 204 in Woodley Park and 602 in Anacostia. As background, arrests for marijuana frequently arise either because an officer personally observes marijuana use or a neighbor or passer-by observes such use and calls the police. In 2010, there were 518 calls for service in PSA 602 for drug complaints. In comparison, in PSA 204 there were only 12. Although the data do not include the specific drug mentioned in the call, this is a pretty fair illustration that the difference in marijuana arrest rates in these two PSAs has nothing to do with police targeting blacks for marijuana possession, but rather police being responsive to reports generated in the community itself. Indeed, 59 percent of MPD officers are black, a higher proportion than the city as a whole.

Lastly, it is very important — at least to me, the MPD and the actual residents in the District — to clarify that other police agencies in the District make arrests for marijuana. In 2010, approximately 9 percent of marijuana possession arrests were made by other agencies. The figure may, in fact, be higher because the District’s arrest system only distinguishes between agencies for adult arrests, not juvenile ones. For lower-level arrests such as marijuana possession, MPD focuses on diversion opportunities for juveniles without criminal records. The department is strongly committed to supporting D.C. youth so that they do not end up in the criminal justice system for a minor transgression.

Police departments in our nation’s large cities are more aware than most of the consequences of arrest records. But we do not make laws; we only enforce them, and we do our best to do so fairly and impartially. My department will continue to respond to the community to enforce our laws, while focusing on violent crime — as we have during my entire tenure as chief.

The writer is chief of the Metropolitan Police Department.