SCHENECTADY — A new report paints a damning portrait of racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests in Schenectady County.
A report compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has found black people are 74 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than their white counterparts — the highest disparity in the state. Statewide, the average is 14.
But evidence suggests white and black residents use marijuana at similar rates, the report says.
NYCLU, which analyzed arrests statewide between 2000 and 2018, cited the gap as a chief case for legalizing marijuana.
One in every six black Schenectady County residents was arrested on marijuana-related charges, according to the report.
That’s compared to 1 in 16 in Albany.
The report comes as state lawmakers are weighing the legalization of recreational marijuana before the end of the legislative session in mid-June.
“I think it’s pretty clear Schenectady treats low-level marijuana arrests much differently than surrounding counties, which is why we support statewide legalization,” said Melanie Trimble, director of the Capital Region chapter of NYCLU.
Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford said the department “consciously monitors” a broad range of statistics reported and critiques their actions to ensure bias is not the underlying reason for investigation or arrest.
“While these statistics are countywide, we acknowledge the message it portrays to our community,” Clifford said. “High-crime areas do receive more attention, and while policing those areas, arrests are made. We are committed to continuously reviewing these measures and will work tirelessly to enforce all laws on an equal basis.”
A number of marijuana arrests by the department are made as a result of “long-term investigations, traffic stops and coordinated details formed to address quality of life issues,” he said.
“We have trained our officers in and practice procedural justice, participate in independent academic studies coordinated by the John Finn Institute, support outreach workers and alternative methods of corrective action, and regularly engage with residents to continue to build trust in our community.”
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said he was surprised by the numbers, calling them “troubling.”
He noted the county is unique in New York state because approximately 43 percent of the population is made up of urban residents, a larger chunk than in other counties.
About 12 percent of the county is black compared to 21 percent of Schenectady city residents.
Carney also noted the county has fewer highway miles than comparable locales.
A broader highway network would lead to a more racially-mixed profile of motorists getting pulled over and charged with cannabis-related offenses, he said.
The district attorney said city police largely make arrests when responding to quality-of-life complaints in the city’s neighborhoods.
“I think the numbers are skewed not because police are doing any kind of racial profiling, but are responding to complaints, and those are complaints in Hamilton Hill, Mont Pleasant and State Street areas," Carney said.
Angelicia A. Morris, executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, called the statistics “very alarming.”
“From a human rights perspective, if there is a bias that is present, then that is a serious issue that needs to be addressed and dealt with,” Morris said. “We need to talk about this topic and other issues that impacts the black community on a continuous basis openly, honestly and with constructive solutions to a systematic problem in our community.”
Morris said Clifford and city police have been “working tirelessly to continue to implement and execute building better relationships with the community and neighborhood associations over the past decade.”
The Schenectady police also have a strong relationship with outreach workers, which Morris cited as proof of the police trying to solve neighborhood issues and complaints without arrest.
William Rivas, founder of the Save Our Streets community group, acknowledged it may be difficult for law enforcement to respond to the statistics. But police don’t make the laws, he said.
Schenectady police have worked to foster better relationships with neighborhoods in recent years via volunteering efforts, he said.
“When you see things like that, you see they’re trying to operate in a space of change,” said Rivas, a community activist.
While the arrest numbers speak for themselves, he said the report does not mention several factors that also drive up arrest rates, including the historic lack of educational resources and opportunities in lower-income communities that may push people into feeling as if they don’t have a choice.
“People find creative ways to make ends meet,” Rivas said.
But while choices in the inner-city may be fewer than in affluent white communities, people also need to empower themselves to take advantage of the opportunities that are available, said Rivas, who was born and raised in the city.
“I had to work hard for those opportunities, but doesn’t mean opportunities weren’t available,” he said.
Morris agrees with the need to steer offenders into community services and programs.
Those must be paired with workforce development training that “meets their passions, utilizes their talents and skills to be productive citizens in the community that they can contribute positively to making their community and neighborhood better and safer.”
The Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.