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ALBANY — Last year, New York Civil Liberties Union lawyers released a report that showed police in Albany County overwhelmingly arrested minorities for low-level marijuana violations.

At the time, police insisted they did not target minorities and Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins vowed to examine what was behind the disparity in his city.

But a year later, a Times Union review of Albany police data from July 9, 2019, to July 9, 2020, shows little has changed. The city’s police department made arrests or wrote tickets for marijuana-related offenses 134 times, ranging from violation-level tickets to felony-level possession arrests. According to the department’s data, 97 percent of the time, those arrested or ticketed were Black. Only four white people were charged with marijuana offenses during the time period despite nationwide evidence that shows Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate.

Hawkins said violent-crime and quality-of-life investigations drive many of the arrests, but his vow to conduct an in-depth investigation of the matter was sidetracked by the department’s need to focus on matters connected to the coronavirus pandemic.

The arrests are happening nearly two years after District Attorney David Soares said he would no longer prosecute minor marijuana arrests when it is the only charge a defendant faces. The data shows that the majority of the arrests were for low-level offenses, either violations or low-level misdemeanors. Seventy six of the 134 incidents were for unlawful possession of marijuana, a violation. Twenty-five arrests were for felony amounts of marijuana, which is at least 8 ounces of the drug.

Debora Brown-Johnson, president of the Albany NAACP branch, said the organization had a conversation with the police department about its approach to marijuana cases after the NYCLU study was released last year.

Last week, she said the organization remains concerned and the issue is something Mayor Kathy Sheehan needed to address.

“Questions still exist, what’s going on here, is this a targeted group?” she said.

“It can’t be that it’s just us. We know that doesn’t make sense. It’s one thing for people to say they experienced it but … here’s the data that shows what’s happening. It doesn’t make sense at the end of the day and so because this is an issue in the city, it’s incumbent on the mayor to take a deeper dive herself and take a look and see what changes can be made to address it.”

In an emailed statement, Sheehan wrote the city would examine the marijuana arrest data as part of a broader, state-mandated overhaul of the city’s police force. In response to the police protests earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed an effort that will force localities around the state to enact police reforms or face the threat of losing state funds.

“The city of Albany Police Reform Collaborative will be undertaking a comprehensive review of the Albany Police Department data associated with arrests by race, gender, and other demographics, and we look forward to having a robust community discussion around these statistics,” she said.

In an interview, Hawkins said a more in-depth examination of the department’s marijuana enforcement had been delayed while the city confronts difficulties with the pandemic but he defended the way his officers enforced the laws around marijuana possession.


Hawkins said all of the felony-level arrests and many of the other citations were connected with police investigations into violent crime or “major” quality-of-life issues related to drug use and sales.

“It’s always concerning when you see that all of the arrests were black males,” said Hawkins, who is Black. “It’s not surprising to me that when we’re concentrating on addressing violent crime … we’re going to pull in some marijuana-related issues.”

In recent months, violence in the city has spiked but there has been no corresponding rise in marijuana arrests. Since June 13, the department has written one marijuana citation, for a violation-level offense on July 26.

From the department’s data it is difficult to make connections between specific arrests and investigation into major crimes or shootings. Of the 134 arrests and citations, 117 are related to calls for a crime in progress, according to the data, but the statistics give no indication of what crimes were being committed or investigated.

Hawkins said the areas with more marijuana citations are locations where police are receiving more calls for service, such as West Hill, Arbor Hill and the South End. According to patrol-zone-level data, 30 percent of the marijuana citations and arrests happened in the area bordered by Central Avenue, Judson Avenue and Lark Street, which includes parts of Arbor Hill and West Hill.

It is unclear if the tickets result in any meaningful prosecutions. Last summer the state decriminalized the possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. The maximum penalty is $50 for possessing less than 1 ounce of pot and a maximum of $200 for between 1 and 2 ounces.

After Soares’ office  said it would no longer prosecute cases where the sole charge was possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana, the Sheriff’s Department said it would stop writing possession tickets.

The city police department, however, decided to continue to make those arrests. The department has had conversations about how to handle low-level possession tickets and Hawkins said officers were not out on patrol looking for minor marijuana crimes.

“We’re not stopping young men in the community and writing them minor possession of marijuana tickets, it’s just not happening,” he said. “I’m not seeing that these young men are being targeted but it’s concerning to me that that they are the ones who are impacted by this.”

The disparity also caught the attention of Douglas Roest-Gyimah, a social worker in the city.

In June, Roest-Gyimah began circulating a petition asking Sheehan to order the department to stop enforcing marijuana laws, arguing the practice unfairly harms minority residents and families.

Roest-Gyimah said he was inspired to examine the data after recent protests against police brutality in the city that were prompted by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“I was moved by everything there, not only to protest but to go home and engage and do something,” he said.

Roest-Gyimah looked at data on the city’s website and said what he found shocked him. So he wrote a Change.org petition and shared it on social media.

The petition asks Sheehan to acknowledge the data and that the police department’s effort to fight drugs is waged on its Black residents. It also asks her to share her views on the causes of the disparity and come up with a specific plan to fix it, pointing out her office issued a three-step community plan to fight illegal fireworks after weeks of complaints.

The petition acknowledged that Sheehan has moved to make some changes in the police department, including issuing an executive order banning chokeholds. It also credited her for the decision to move the statute of Gen. Phillip Schuyler, a Revolutionary War hero who was among the region’s biggest owners of enslaved people, from in front of City Hall.

“However, we believe neither of these gestures do much of anything at all to create meaningful, long-lasting change,” Roest-Gyimah wrote. ”We write you to ask that you respond to this ongoing humanitarian crisis with equal enthusiasm and vigor as you did with the fireworks.”

More than 2,500 people have signed the petition.

Roest-Gyimah expressed frustration at the lack of response from the city. He said he emailed the petition to the mayor’s office and tried calling. He also said he signed up for one of Sheehan’s Create Change Together chats, a series of in-person or teleconference meetings with the mayor and police chief that began in the aftermath of the protests. Nearly two months later, he said he still hasn’t received any response or an invitation to join one of those discussions.

In her emailed statement, Sheehan did not address the petition or its requests.

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