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Jun 2013: Racial Disparity in Pot Busts Troubling

Mike Nichols Mike Nichols

Someone could write a book about all the knuckleheaded ways Wisconsinites get caught with pot.

All over the state, all the time, Wisconsinites are caught with the stuff in everything from their cupcakes to their pants to their gardens. Last year, a guy in Madison was busted for allegedly selling it while riding a unicycle in Peace Park — though he claimed it was all for personal consumption.

I don’t think there’s any truth to the rumor he told officers, “Hey, that’s just how I roll.”

But it’s certainly how a lot of Wisconsinites do.

Much less amusing is the recent report issued by the ACLU stating that black Wisconsinites are almost six times more likely than white Wisconsinites to be arrested for marijuana possession even though it’s well-established that the same approximate percentage of blacks and whites smoke it.

That’s an absurdly large disparity exceeded only by the ones in the District of Columbia and three other states that all happen to be our neighbors: Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. As troubling: The fact that the disparity has grown dramatically over the last 10 years.

“My quick perspective is that it’s an unacceptable disparity…that leads to differences in sentencing and incarceration and all of the ramifications that flow from that,” said James Hall, president of the NAACP in Milwaukee.

Wisconsinites, he added, need to ask ourselves why it is so much worse here than in most other states.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the ACLU in Wisconsin, didn’t have an answer for that or why the disparity has been increasing.

“I think the most I would be willing to say,” he said, “is the increase is troubling and merits more investigation.”

He doesn’t blame racism.

“From the data in the ACLU report you can’t identify the extent to which biased policing is part of it,” he said. But he doesn’t rule it out either, adding he finds it “hard to believe there is not some element” of it.

Another possibility, says Ahmuty, is that the disparity likely has something to do with “policing strategies” that are “place-based” and go after “hot spots.”

That’s a logical deduction and one that cops I talked to in Milwaukee don’t necessarily disagree with – or apologize for.

Data-driven policing has focused on high-crime, largely impoverished neighborhoods that, unfortunately, are largely African-American. The median household income for whites in Wisconsin is $53,600, according to 2006-2010 American Community Survey data. For blacks, it’s $27,900 and in Midwestern states like Wisconsin high percentages of African-Americans live in urban areas that are a focal point for police.

Cops and prosecutors around the state say that while they haven’t had time to digest the voluminous, 187-page report, racism is not tolerated — although allegations that came out this week of racist language by the former Butler police chief indicate not everyone has always shared that sentiment.

“One of the things that would be absolutely unacceptable to all of us would be to hear that some officer is making decisions based on race,” said Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel.

You’d hope not. But the disparity, whatever the reason, is real. Black Wisconsinites, reliable statistics suggest, are basically no more likely to be in possession of marijuana than white Wisconsinites, but they are much more likely to be in contact with police targeting poorer, high-crime neighborhoods.

That has to be of little comfort to African-Americans — and ought to be of little comfort to fair-minded whites as well. While it’s hard to argue with the law-enforcement gains made through data-driven policing of high-crime neighborhoods, there’s a discomforting reality that white pot-smokers need to acknowledge.

When it comes to escaping arrest or being cited, you’re just lucky you’re not as apt to live in a high-crime neighborhood as your black peers.