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Black People Overrepresented in Dallas Low-Level Weed Arrests

Public arrest data from 2018 to 2022 revealed that Black people made up 69 percent of arrests for possession of 2 ounces or less of marijuana, but they make up about 24 percent of Dallas’ population.

Tonya McClary, Dallas' police oversight monitor
Tonya McClary, Dallas' police oversight monitor.
(Juan Figueroa/Dallas Morning News/TNS)
A new report by Dallas’ top police watchdog and activists shows Black people are overrepresented in low-level marijuana arrests, spurring calls for an expansion of the de-enforcement policy in the city.

The study — led by Dallas’ Office of Community Police Oversight, a civil rights group called The Leadership Conference Education Fund and local community organizer Tamara Neal — examined public arrest data from 2018 to 2022 but acknowledged room for error because of incomplete or missing entries in Dallas’ database.

Although the overall number of low-level arrests steadily dropped, the report found people of color were disproportionately impacted — especially for possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana and criminal trespassing. Public intoxication arrests, which made up 64 percent of low-level arrests, also showed a racial disparity, but with a smaller gap.

The authors called for police and city officials to expand the marijuana de-enforcement policy from 2 to 4 ounces; de-prioritize arrests for other misdemeanors; make the marijuana possession policy an ordinance not subject to leadership changes; create a task force to minimize police interactions for low-level offenses; and give the oversight office “free and unfettered access” to police data.

“What we do in Dallas impacts a lot of our brother and sister oversight agencies across the country,” police oversight monitor Tonya McClary said in an interview. “There is an opportunity here for council and the city manager and others to partner with this office to make sure that our department is doing 21st century policing.”

It was unclear whether Dallas police Chief Eddie García would support expanding the marijuana de-enforcement policy. De-enforcement means police generally wouldn’t file charges against someone for small amounts of marijuana, although they’d still seize the marijuana.

Dallas police spokeswoman Kristin Lowman said “expansion would have to be a discussion between city and county officials.” She did not comment on specific data in the analysis, saying police had not yet reviewed the report.

The analysis comes as residents in other Texas cities pushed for an end to citations and arrests for small amounts of marijuana, with varying levels of success. Possessing more than 4 ounces of marijuana is a felony in Texas. Two to 4 ounces is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year of jail and a fine up to $4,000. A Class B misdemeanor — less than 2 ounces — is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine up to $2,000.

The report comes two years after the oversight office’s preliminary study, which found Black residents were overrepresented in low-level misdemeanor arrests by Dallas police. Two months later, García directed officers to stop arrests for small amounts of marijuana intended for personal use, considered 2 ounces or less, with exceptions such as if the drug appears to be for distribution.

The policy change “significantly reduced” arrests solely for marijuana possession in Dallas, which dropped from 456 in 2018 to 49 last year, according to the report. Racial disparities persisted, even though national research shows people of color use marijuana at about the same rates as white people, the report said.

In 2022, Black people made up 69 percent of arrests for possession of 2 ounces or less of marijuana, which was a higher percentage than in any of the four preceding years, according to the report. Latino people made up 22 percent of those arrests and white people 4 percent, the report said.

The report compared arrest rates to Dallas’ general population, of which Black residents make up about 24 percent, Latinos make up 42 percent and white people (who do not consider themselves Hispanic or Latino) 28.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau estimate in 2022. The study noted police believed the data should be analyzed looking at who gets arrested or by calls for service instead of Dallas’ general population; the authors responded that Black and Brown people are overpoliced, which leads to more arrests.

Lowman said police complied with the policy not to arrest people for up to 2 ounces of marijuana, but declined to say how many people were not arrested. She said the information can be acquired through an open records request. The Dallas Morning News filed a request for the information, which was not available as of Monday.

Claire Crouch, a spokeswoman for the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, would not say how many marijuana possession cases Dallas police filed, saying “this is a City of Dallas issue.” She declined to detail the office’s position regarding the marijuana de-enforcement recommendation, or provide numbers for criminal trespass arrests.

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot previously vowed not to prosecute first-time misdemeanor marijuana offenses, a move supported by researchers from SMU’s Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center who found Black people in Dallas County were grossly overrepresented among those arrested for low-level drug offenses.

A new bill signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott allows residents to file petitions against their top local prosecutors if the district attorney adopts blanket policies to not pursue certain crimes or politically-charged offenses. Those policies would be considered official misconduct and could be grounds for removal.

Other Cities Fight to Decriminalize Marijuana

James Kelsay, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Arlington who reviewed the report, said racial disparities in low-level offenses are reflected in cities nationwide — as is the push to de-enforce marijuana possession and other misdemeanors.

In Denton, 71 percent of voters last year opted to de-prioritize enforcing possession of 4 ounces or less of marijuana with some exceptions. However, the ordinance remains centered in a battle between city leadership, police and voters, with some officials continuing to voice opposition.

Voters in other Texas cities including Austin, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Harker Heights also approved ending enforcement of misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses last year. A clash played out in some of those jurisdictions, with the City Council in Harker Heights repealing the ordinance two weeks later, according to The Killeen Daily Herald .

Kelsay said de-enforcement can help police focus on serious crime, but since marijuana possession is illegal in Texas, such changes could cause confusion for police about what is enforceable.

“If we see anything like this in Dallas, it’s probably gonna be similar initiatives like at the ballot box,” Kelsay said. “Issues like this really should require input from the community. The taxpayers of Dallas should probably be the ones who decide what the police are focusing on.”

Kelsay said measuring racial disparity requires more than a descriptive analysis. The city of Dallas’ entire population is not necessarily at risk for being stopped by police, and people from other cities drive through the area, which changes the population composition, he said.

“Both sides make really good points,” Kelsay said. “There needs to be more of a collaborative sort of arrangement here for them to work together and try to address this issue rather than fighting back and forth.”

Next Steps

McClary said police began providing oversight officials with arrest data this year. She said she tried to get raw data from Dallas police to verify the numbers obtained through the public database are accurate, but was met with roadblocks. Lowman said without elaborating that police provide the oversight office with arrest data.

McClary plans to present the report to Dallas’ Community Police Oversight Board and hopes to do the same with the City Council’s public safety committee. Changa Higgins, of the group Dallas Action, said they intend to host community conversations and will invite police, policymakers and city stakeholders.

Michael Sneed, a longtime South Dallas resident who gathered with the authors in support of the report, said misdemeanor arrests cost taxpayers and lead to people losing jobs or family members. He said the enforcement seems meant to collect bond money from Black people who don’t have the funds, or to coerce them to snitch on others.

Sneed’s cousin was Atatiana Jefferson, a Black woman killed in her mother’s home by Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean in 2019. Dean, who is white, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison. Killings by police sometimes start with low-level offenses. Dean was initially responding to a call about an open door when he shot and killed Jefferson.

“Who’s complaining about marijuana other than the police department? I don’t see citizens walking around in my neighborhood saying, ‘Hey, call the cops, they’re smoking marijuana,’” Sneed said.

Neal, one of the authors of the report, said she hopes this analysis, which was endorsed by local community groups and the ACLU’s Texas division, is taken seriously.

“We want real reform, not check-the-box reform,” Neal said. “We don’t want knee-jerk reactions to what we’re doing. We need to be a part of the citywide 21st century policing conversation.”

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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