Durham County

Durham city manager calls racial disparity in marijuana arrests a 'particular concern'

City Manager Tom Bonfield wants to know why nearly nine out of 10 people arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges in Durham during the past year were black.

In its recommendations for dealing with alleged police racism, the Durham Human Relations Commission did not mention marijuana, but Bonfield’s response to those recommendations does.

In a summary of the response, he will present to the City Council on Thursday, the manager describes racial disparities in misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession as “of particular concern.”

According to Bonfield’s report, in 768 misdemeanor marijuana arrests from Jan. 1, 2013 to July 1, 2014, 86 percent of those arrested were black.

Bonfield said six community groups he consulted in preparing his response said marijuana arrests were a major concern. One of those groups, the Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement Coalition (FADE), has called on the city for more than a year to designate marijuana enforcement the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.

Relieving inequity in marijuana enforcement is FADE’s major purpose, along with encouraging a public-health, rather than law-enforcement, approach to drug abuse. The group says de-emphasizing marijuana enforcement would help reduce racial disparities in traffic stops, searches and incarceration rates, as well as arrest rates.

Statistics show Durham County actually has had a relatively low rate of arrests for offenses involving marijuana.

A compilation of national FBI data by The Washington Post ( wapo.st/1rXglW7) shows Durham County’s 2012 rate was 153 per 100,000 population – well below the national average of 198 per 100,000 and lower than the rates of Guilford, Forsyth, Wake and Mecklenburg counties. Eighty-five percent of Durham County’s population lives inside the Durham city limits.

“I’m not surprised that it was lower,” Police Chief Jose L. Lopez said Wednesday, “because since I’ve been here, marijuana arrests have never been a priority in this organization. For marijuana use, mere possession, that has never been a priority.”

Lopez was named Durham’s chief of police in 2007. Durham County Sheriff’s Capt. Don Baker said Durham’s comparatively low arrest rate could be due in part to Durham deputies’ usual practice of issuing citations for low-level marijuana offenses rather than making arrests.

“We don’t put low-level marijuana very high” on department priorities, Baker said. Other jurisdictions, he said, may be “more aggressive” in marijuana enforcement, which could skew the arrest numbers.

FADE’s statistics, for 2003 through 2007, also show Durham County having a history of relatively low rates for marijuana arrests among the state’s metropolitan counties, but the highest percentage of those arrests being of black suspects: 75 percent.

The Human Relations Commission considered recommending marijuana’s de-emphasis in its report, but after discussion decided against it. Several other local organizations, though, including Durham Congregations in Action and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, have endorsed marijuana’s de-emphasis.

According to FADE, marijuana arrests have been concentrated in predominantly black neighborhoods.

In a written statement to the Human Relations Commission, the Durham Police Department denied “over-policing in communities of color.”

“Police resources are deployed as needed based on a combination of factors,” including citizens’ calls for service, and “the people of color who live in these communities are asking the police for help,” the statement said.