Last month, something unforgettable happened: Two Chicago journalists wrote something, and a politician responded in a meaningful way.
That might not seem like big news to you, but to those of us who are used to getting routine responses from public officials, stating blandly that they are "concerned" about an issue and "will look into it further," getting an actual response from someone in power is quite amazing.
The journalists were Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader and the politician, Toni Preckwinkle. Dumke and Joravsky, both former The Chicago Reporter staffers, knocked it out of the park with an investigation revealing the ratio of black-to-white arrests for pot possession in Chicago was 15 to 1, even though marijuana use is something all classes and races have in common.
Preckwinkle's response? We've got to stop. "I think we should decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, that's for sure," she said.
And now, the new police superintendent has gotten in on the act. While at first he was hesitant, Gerry McCarthy has proposed a solution: ticketing instead of arrests for marijuana possession.
When I first heard this idea, I was genuinely confused. A ticket? Like a parking ticket? For smoking pot? So, instead of charging people with a crime and throwing them in jail for a night, we're just charging them money instead?
Somewhere along the line, perhaps McCarthy missed the point. Dumke and Joravsky said arrests for pot possession were disproportionately for black men. Preckwinkle said that was wrong for several reasons, one of which was that it costs the county money to lock people up for no reason. Then McCarthy comes up with a proposal: instead of it costing people money, we'll start charging them.
When I chatted with host Ken Davis last week on CAN TV's Chicago Newsroom, Davis suggested it was just another revenue raising idea from a cash strapped city and county. And maybe, like red-light cameras, that means enforcement for marijuana possession would spread to wealthier, whiter communities.
But the anecdotes and quotes from the Reader article are just not anything I can imagine going on in wealthy North Side neighborhoods.
"It's such a waste of manpower—you stop somebody and a nickel bag falls out," says the watch commander. And if the police take time to make an arrest and file a report, "they're not on the street responding to other calls."
The arrests aren't helping with neighborhood relations either. "I think it's a travesty because there are bigger things going on in the community, such as violence," says Jimmy Simmons, a community policing facilitator in the west-side neighborhoods of Humboldt Park and East Garfield Park.
Simmons says too often police simply stop and search men who appear to be minding their own business, which breeds distrust throughout the community. "It's almost like racial profiling. The young men we try to talk to, they feel they're being picked on, and I tend to agree with that."
And the stories that go along with these arrests wouldn't be tolerated by wealthier residents, who'd have more access to legal help.
"We defense lawyers call it 'The Story'—'the guy was standing on the corner, I drove down the street at 30 miles an hour, I came within 10 feet, and he dropped it,'" says [Frank] Edwards, a former Cook County prosecutor and judge who has been in private practice for the last 15 years.
It's fair to say Edwards questions the veracity of these narratives. "People are so stupid that they pull drugs out of their pockets and throw it onto the ground in front of the police," he says facetiously. "At least half the cases are like this."
Public defenders have their own terminology. "It's called a drop case," says Patrick Reardon, the county's first assistant public defender. "We looked at the subject, and as he looked at us he reached into his pocket and dropped a bag on the ground with a green leafy substance'—I've heard this thousands of times."
If you're arrested for marijuana possession and the charges aren't dropped, it can carry a hefty fine. So is the new ticketing proposal saying that if we're going to single out one racial demographic for arrests, we should at least be charging them less?
Red-light cameras are one thing. Middle-class white folks get parking tickets and speeding tickets. That's common. What Dumke and Joravsky are pointing to is a problem with policing and enforcement itself, not just with the punishment.
If the current law is keeping people in jail for a night and then letting them go free, perhaps disgruntled, is it really going to be better to start shaking down poor communities for cash?
Graphic: Chicago Reader
© Community Renewal Society 2011