Philly’s marijuana policing problem: After decriminalization, racial bias goes unchecked

One in four tickets for weed possession fall in a single West Philadelphia district.

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Andy Colwell / for Billy Penn
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Updated 8:15 a.m.

Kevin Stevenson is happy Philadelphia decriminalized marijuana offenses in 2014.

The move led to swift reductions in arrests, which had disproportionately impacted black and brown marijuana users like himself. Today, rather than jail time, getting caught carrying or smoking small amounts of weed results instead in a $25 to $100 fine.

Philadelphia police officers wrote nearly 12,000 citations for possession and public smoking of marijuana between 2014 and 2018. Stevenson is convinced the racial disparities that existed prior to decriminalization remain, even if cops are now reaching for a ticketbook instead of handcuffs.

The 34-year-old artist has gotten about five of these tickets himself since 2014, most of them for puffing near Rittenhouse Square. It’s a central meeting hub for his friends from other parts of the city, much safer than his native West Philly, he said — and it’s beautiful.

He’s observed people of all backgrounds get stoned in and around the square, despite rules prohibiting smoking in the park itself. But when it comes to enforcement, he sees a clear pattern.

“A group of white kids sitting in the park actually smoking, they ride right by them,” Stevenson said. “They come over here instead. They target the people who look like me — dreads, African American, young.”

Marijuana citation records reviewed by Billy Penn confirm one part of that picture. The Center City police district encompassing Rittenhouse was the most heavily ticketed for public smoking between 2014 and 2018, while one West Philadelphia district received the lion’s share of fines for possession.

But did marijuana users of color like Stevenson comprise a disproportionate number of those ticketed?

That’s near impossible to tell.

Marijuana smoking and possession are ticketed as “code violation notices,” or CVNs, a system that does not track race, gender or other demographic information. The loss of this data has been a quiet side effect of decriminalization, but one that nonetheless represents a concern for civil rights advocates, who say the PPD has a long track record of discriminatory policing.

“Time and again, it’s been shown that officers in the Philadelphia Police Department have a racial bias problem,” said Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Pa. “So data collection on police behavior is vital for promoting transparency and accountability.”

Mayor Jim Kenney spokesperson Mike Dunn agrees the demographic omission is a concern for the city and its police force, which have been sued in the past over discriminatory policing practices. Officials say they’re looking at options to start tracking the data.

“We hope at some point to be able to overcome the logistical issues that currently preclude us from tracking this information,” Dunn said.

Racial disparities persist despite reforms

Since 2016, Philadelphia has received two grants totalling $7.65 million from the MacArthur Foundation to help reduce its prison population — and to reduce racial, ethnic and economic disparities in the criminal justice system.

Over the five years since decriminalizing marijuana, the city similarly downgraded a number of other offenses, including obstruction of highway, public drunkenness, failure to disperse and disorderly conduct. Though arrests do still occur, these once-criminal infractions are no longer pursued in court. They are more often resolved with fines.

Collectively, these reforms have helped usher in historic reductions in the city’s jail population. However, the Philadelphia Office of Criminal Justice acknowledged that among those in prison, racial disparities have barely budged at all.

On top of that, officials say they’ve realized there’s no easy way to monitor racial and economic disparities for people being diverted away from county lockup via citations.

Fixing the problem would either require restructuring the city’s code violation ticketbook — which is primarily used for ticketing property addresses, not people — or creating an alternate way to track demographic info.

“It will require some alternative mechanisms for capturing that information, because right now we don’t have it,” said Rachel Eisenberger, director of policy and planning for the city’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Hoover, of the ACLU, said he understands collecting racial data would require changes to current practices. He emphasized, however, that “it would be a valuable service to the community, to show whether or not officers are enforcing the ordinance in a fair way.”

1 in 4 weed tickets are in one West Philly district

Black Philadelphians comprise the vast majority of those who are still arrested on weed charges. And ticket data shows that where you are in the city can impact your chances of getting hassled over your ganja.

“Some [police] districts never give citations, some districts are citation crazy,” said Jamie Gullen, an attorney with Community Legal Services who helps low-income clients navigate ticket-related legal issues.

A Billy Penn analysis of ticketing data shows that one predominantly African American section of the city is ground zero for possession tickets.

West Philly’s 19th District — think north of Market Street from 52nd Street out to City Avenue — accounted for one quarter of all the citations issued for marijuana possession since decriminalization went into effect.

Officers there wrote 2,181 citations for possession between 2014 and 2018. For comparison, the three police districts that cover South Philadelphia issued a combined 345 tickets in that same period.

Public marijuana smoking in this slice of West Philadelphia came a close second behind the Center City district that encompasses Rittenhouse.

Philly police declined to make 19th District Capt. John Stanford available for an interview. Even prior to Stanford’s tenure, however, this district had developed a reputation for heavy policing of quality-of-life offenses, where officers notoriously enforce small so-called “broken windows” policing of minor offenses.

The district also tops the charts citywide for drinking alcohol in public, as well as other non-criminal offenses. It is unclear why ticketing remains such a high mandate in this district specifically, although civic groups do lodge complaints about nuisance behaviors around the neighborhood.

What’s clear is that most tickets go ignored.

Only 50% of all code violation tickets ever get paid — and the figure is drastically lower for marijuana offenses. Payment compliance for smoking is 15%. For possession, only 27% of the fines assessed are actually recovered.

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