Police halt downtown marijuana stings

Concern about racial disparities prompts policy shift

Mayor Jacob Frey directed Minneapolis police to end undercover operations that targeted small-time marijuana dealers downtown after a Hennepin County public defender raised concerns about racial disparities among those arrested and charged.

“We will discontinue specific low-level marijuana enforcement, and I agree with the mayor’s decision,” Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said when he announced the policy change at a June 7 press conference.

In a memo sent to Arradondo and Frey a week earlier, as well as in a court motion submitted around the same time, Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty noted 46 of the 47 people facing felony drug sale charges as a result of the stings were black. Many of those swept up in the operations, which began earlier this year, sold undercover officers just one or two grams of marijuana.

“We’re talking 10, 20 bucks’ worth,” Moriarty said.

She noted the one white person arrested in the stings approached the undercover officers, instead of the other way around.

While possession of up to 42.5 grams of marijuana is only a petty misdemeanor under state law — the equivalent of a traffic ticket, and not technically a crime — prosecutors can apply felony charges to the sale of even small amounts. She said public defenders had raised the issue with Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office months earlier, but the prosecutions continued.

Moriarty said research shows whites and blacks use marijuana “at pretty much the same rate,” suggesting the time and place police chose to conduct the stings contributed to the stark disparities in arrests. She noted many of those charged with felonies were experiencing homelessness and may have turned to dealing as a way to get by.

“I’m not unsympathetic to the downtown businesses and I understand it’s important people feel it’s safe down there. I think a more effective approach would have officers in uniform, engaging with the community, walking up and down (the street),” she said.

In a Facebook post, Arradondo said downtown public safety details carried out by the 1st Precinct are “focused on reducing violent crime and improving livability conditions,” and that they have produced results.

“The officers’ actions as we conducted these details were professional and legal,” he wrote. “However, as the Chief, I need to raise my voice when I see a concern that impacts our city as a whole.”

Arradondo said he believes there are a significant number of black men who feel selling drugs is “their only choice to survive and provide for themselves.” He said he did not want the department “to contribute to a sense of hopelessness.”

“Solutions will require a collaborative effort to address these systemic challenges that, unfortunately, are still present in our great city,” Arradondo concluded.

Moriarty said she was encouraged by the response of the mayor and police chief. She said it had been her experience that raising examples of racial disparities often leads to defensiveness.

“I think it’s a really positive step forward that both the mayor and the chief of police were able to address the impact,” she said.

“One person in jail solely for the possession of marijuana is one too many,” Frey wrote on Facebook. “Marijuana laws have been used to target people of color for decades. We have made progress, but full legalization would mark a meaningful and impactful step toward reforming our criminal justice system.”