Today, Governor David Paterson signed legislation to limit the NYPD practice of storing personal information on innocent New Yorkers who are stopped-and-frisked but not charged with any crime.
The number of stop-and-frisks by NYPD have exploded over the past decade, increasing from less than 100,000 in 2002 to 581,000 in 2009. The NYPD's own numbers show that 90% of the people stopped are non-white and that 85% of those stopped are not charged with any crime. Despite their innocence, police enter personal information about all of those stopped into their police database system.
Civil liberties groups like the NYCLU and Center for Constitutional Rights have criticized the practice and have called on the NYPD to end it.
Governor Paterson should be applauded for signing this important legislation. New Yorkers of all races should be comfortable walking down the streets without being targeted by the police when they have done nothing wrong. It adds insult to injury that innocent New Yorkers, after being unfairly searched, also have their personal information entered into a police database when they have committed no crime.
There is another destructive consequence of the stop-and-frisk policy that has not received enough attention: it has made New York City the marijuana arrest capital of the world. While the police justify stop-and-frisks as a way to find guns, what is most often found are small amounts of marijuana. Although marijuana was decriminalized in New York State in 1977, Bloomberg's police arrested more than 46,000 people last year on marijuana possession - 10 percent of all arrests in the city, up from one percent in the mid 1990s.
If possession of marijuana is supposed to be decriminalized in New York, how does this happen? Often because, in the course of interacting with the police, individuals may be asked to empty their pockets, which results in the pot being "open to public view" - which is, technically, a crime. And because blacks and Latinos are the ones most often stopped, they make up 87 percent of low-level marijuana arrests, even though they are no more likely than whites to use or sell it. These arrests produce permanent criminal records that disqualify people for jobs, housing, schooling and student loans.
The NYPD arrests Latinos for marijuana possession at four times the rate of whites, and blacks at seven times the rate of whites. It's not that young black and brown men are more likely to smoke a joint in public; it's that they're much more likely than most other New Yorkers to be stopped and searched -- and then arrested when the police find in their pockets what they'd also find in the pockets of hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers, if they looked.
Marijuana prohibition is unique among American criminal laws - no other law is both enforced so widely and harshly yet deemed unnecessary by such a substantial portion of the population. While this new legislation goes a long way toward protecting innocent New Yorkers, let's remember that the primary targets of the NYPD's excessive stop-and-frisks are not gun-toting criminals or terrorists. Rather, most of the "guilty" people simply happen to have a small amount of marijuana on them. Unfortunately, being arrested for this "crime" can cause significantly greater harm than the marijuana itself.
Ethan Nadelmann is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)