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NYCLU walks back report on pot arrests

NYCLU walks back report on pot arrests

Civil liberties group apologizes to police for exaggerated numbers
NYCLU walks back report on pot arrests
Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford, right, speaks during a press conference in 2017.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — The New York Civil Liberties Union is apologizing to the Schenectady Police Department after issuing a scathing report that knocked Schenectady County for racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

The original report claimed black residents are 74 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than white residents, the highest disparity in the state. 

But black residents are actually 10 times more likely to be arrested than white residents, the NYCLU said, reducing the number under the statewide average of 14.

And while the original report released in May determined one in every six black county residents was arrested on marijuana-related offenses, the true number is 28, bouncing the county out of the top 10 statewide.

Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford said the department accepted the apology and have "pledged to continue to work closely with them in the future.”

But Clifford criticized the NYCLU for releasing the study to the media before the department could review it. 

Upon initial review, the disparities were clear and inconsistent with what the department had observed, he said.

NYCLU also failed to provide the data and methodology when initially asked, Clifford said, and the department was forced to request a meeting with the group to obtain that information.

"The premature release of an analysis conducted by a third party agency has impacted the law enforcement community negatively and eroded the trust that we at the Schenectady Police Department have worked relentlessly to build," said Clifford. "The building of a community’s trust takes time; something our officers have invested hundreds of man hours into. Yet, one single analysis and the reporting of that analysis has the potential to damage that relationship."

'SIGNIFICANT ERROR'

NYCLU attributed the errors to a “misalignment” between arrest numbers provided by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services and U.S. Census data that caused the wrong population numbers to be associated with Schenectady arrests once the files were merged.

“This was due to one of the sheets auto-alphabetizing 'St Lawrence' as 'Saint Lawrence,' which resulted in six counties between Saratoga and St. Lawrence being misaligned,” said Trevor Smith, an NYCLU spokesman. “When we discovered the error, we immediately alerted the Schenectady Police Department."

NYCLU acknowledged the discrepancy was a “significant error.”

“We have been in touch with and apologized to the Schenectady Police Department about the error,” said NYCLU Capital Region Chapter Director Melanie Trimble. “They have assured us that racial disparities in marijuana arrests are something they have been addressing and will continue to focus on.”

In their initial response to the report, city police said they “consciously monitor” a broad range of statistics reported and critique their actions to ensure bias is not the underlying reason for investigation or arrest. 

"The Schenectady Police Department prides itself on consistently reviewing data on all levels to assess our performance and to ensure that we are meeting the expectations of the public we serve," he said on Friday.

According to the revised data, Monroe County now has the highest discrepancy statewide between arrests of white and black residents, who are 16 times more likely to be arrested on cannabis-related charges. In Herkimer and Delaware counties, the number is slightly lower at 15.

The report was released as the state Legislature discussed legislation to make recreational marijuana legal.

The annual legislative session ended without a deal, but lawmakers agreed to scaled-back reforms that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and expunge low-level charges.

Despite the mistake, Trimple said “racial disparities in marijuana arrests still exist in Schenectady and across the state."

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