City Manager Tom Bonfield will sit down with Police Chief C.J. Davis to discuss instructing officers to issue a warning or a citation in lieu of making an arrest for misdemeanor marijuana offenses.
The City Council approved the directive unanimously Thursday in response to a request by the Fostering Alternatives Drug Enforcement (FADE) Coalition and Self-Help Credit Union. The groups had sought a city ordinance or resolution making minor marijuana infractions a low law-enforcement priority.
If Bonfield and Davis don’t think the directive is an appropriate action, then one of them should return to the City Council with an explanation, said City Council member Charlie Reece.
The FADE Coalition has been pushing elected leaders to take formal steps since 2013. In November Self-Help Credit Union joined the call, citing an analysis that shows shows a disproportionate number of those charged with the crimes are black.
On Thursday Self-Help President Randy Chambers said 2015 figures indicate 79 percent of all misdemeanor enforcement violations were issued to African American. And only one quarter of those charged were issued a ticket versus an arrest in which people are taken to the Durham County jail and an FBI number is associated with their name.
What is particularly troubling, Chambers said, is that some of the charges don’t require jail time if the person is convicted, but people end up in jail before a ruling because they can’t post bail. Some plead guilty just to get out of jail.
Chambers asked that the ordinance or resolution require semi-annual reporting by the Police Department on misdemeanor marijuana arrests.
Reece said he would introduce and vote for an ordinance but acknowledged other members have “legitimate valid reasons” to take another approach.
Four years ago, the Fayettevile City Council attempted to make some changes to the way the Police Department did consent searches. The police union in that city filed a lawsuit, and a judge issued a restraining order preventing the city from moving forward with an ordinance, Reece said.
Then the N.C. Department of Justice drafted a letter saying the City Council doesn’t have the authority to expand or restrict the powers of law enforcement granted by the N.C. General Assembly.
“I think that the issue is that important that we should be willing to take that stand,” Reece said, but he conceded a number of other council members are concerned about the city’s authority.
City Attorney Patrick Baker said in an email to City Council members that he would prefer the council pass a resolution to an ordinance.
Baker pointed out the council informally weighed in on its desire for the police to obtain written consent before conducting a consent search of vehicles without adopting a formal resolution. Bonfield “converted the council’s stated desire into a new directive” to the Police Department, Baker wrote. The practice was then adopted by the department in 2014.
City Councilman Eddie Davis suggested the city explore a comprehensive approach that includes community programs.
“Ways that might be able to prevent young people from getting into these positions,” he said.
City Councilman Steve Schewel said while Police Department leaders have indicated in recent years that misdemeanor marijuana possession is a low-level priority, the numbers indicate the message isn’t making it down to the lower ranks.
Schewel said he is concerned about the disproportionate numbers and the impact it is having on young people’s lives.
“Looking out on this crowd – and I see a lot of white people – I smoked a lot of marijuana when I was young, and I bet a lot of you did too,” he said. But they didn’t face charges that could hurt them the rest of their lives, he said.
“We need to make sure we have the same kind of quality of treatment all across our city,’ he said.
After the decision, Nia Wilson, executive director of community organizing nonprofit SpiritHouse, which is part of the FADE Coalition, said she appreciates the council taking the issue seriously, but its actions weren’t enough.
“But we expected this, and we will just keep plugging,” she said.