Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy announced this morning that they’re transferring more cops to beat patrols, thereby fulfilling Emanuel’s campaign pledge to put 1,000 “additional” officers on the street.
And, as McCarthy says whenever the police union argues for hiring more officers, the issue isn’t simply the size of your force—it’s how you use it.
“Since we walked through the door we’ve been looking at every single [police department] job trying to figure out where is everybody and what are they doing,” McCarthy told Carol Marin on Chicago Tonight earlier this week. “This is all about creating efficiencies.”
In case he hasn’t discovered it yet, here’s what a lot of police are doing: arresting people for possessing small amounts of pot.
Last year, for example, Chicago police made 23,970 arrests for cannabis possession, according to department data.
Nearly all of these arrests—more than 22,000 of them—involved less than an ounce.
If that sounds like a lot of arrests, that’s because it is. Low-level marijuana possession was the number one cause of arrest in Chicago in 2010. These busts accounted for more than one of every eight arrests the police made.
It’s hard to say exactly what this arrest policy is costing us, as Ben Joravsky and I detailed in this week’s paper.
But let's be safe and set those figures aside, since, as other experts stress, police would be on the job even if they weren’t making these arrests. They say it’s more useful to think of the opportunity cost—what officers could be doing if they weren’t cuffing people for marijuana. By that count, small pot arrests chewed up about 66,000 hours of valuable Chicago police time in 2010.
And of course each of these arrests is sent into the court system, where it costs $2,500 apiece to open a case, according to the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice. That’s $57.5 million a year from the county’s budget.
McCarthy said over the summer that he’s looking into issuing citations for pot possession instead of making full arrests. But he’s had resistance from other high-ranking cops, and so far nothing’s changed.
“The department will continue to examine enforcement options to reduce the processing time for minor possession of cannabis violations,” says Maureen Biggane, a McCarthy spokeswoman. “However, it is not the department's intention to cease enforcing any violation of the law.”
Meanwhile, in McCarthy’s hometown of New York City, police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly recently instructed officers to stop arresting people for possessing pot unless they’re displaying it openly.
Sociologist Harry Levine, author of a study estimating that NYC spends at least $75 million a year on pot busts, says that for years New York cops were stopping people and asking them to empty their pockets—which is essentially what’s still going on in Chicago’s black neighborhoods.