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Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey (file photo) Brian Chilson

On May 18, the Little Rock Board of Directors approved a city ordinance that designated misdemeanor marijuana offenses the lowest priority for law enforcement. At the meeting, Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey told the city board that the ordinance would not have a material impact on the police department because it has already adopted an unofficial policy of deprioritizing marijuana offenses.

“What I want to establish here to the directors and to the citizens is the Little Rock Police Department has not arrested anyone physically for the sole purpose of small amounts of marijuana in several years,” Humphrey said. The department has long had a practice of “cite and release” for minor marijuana offenses, he said, meaning offenders are given a ticket and a court summons but not held in the Pulaski County jail.

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However, publicly available information contradicts the chief’s claim. According to data retrieved from the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer by the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, the lowest-level marijuana offenders were given a citation in fewer than half of arrests in Little Rock in 2019. Most arrests seem to have resulted in offenders being physically apprehended by an officer and taken to jail, even in the absence of other crimes.

In 2019, 322 out of 833 marjuana arrests in Little Rock were for possession alone, involved less than one ounce of marijuana, and did not involve any other type of drug or other criminal offense. Every arrest in the FBI dataset is labeled as one of three types: a citation, an apprehension on a warrant, or an “on view” arrest. An “on view” arrest means the officer found probable cause to apprehend the person without a warrant. Only about 39% of these 322 lowest-level marijuana possession arrests resulted in a citation. In about 11%, a warrant was involved. The majority, just over 50%, were “on view” arrests.

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The data also reveals vast racial disparities in Little Rock’s enforcement of marijuana laws: In 85% of the lowest-level arrests, the offender was Black. The offender was white in just 11% of arrests. Little Rock’s population is 43% Black and 46% non-Hispanic white, according to 2019 U.S. Census figures. That means a Black resident of the city was eight times more likely than a white resident to be arrested for a minor marijuana offense, even though research indicates white and Black Americans in general use marijuana at similar rates.

Eric Barnes, a spokesman for the department, said it wasn’t clear if officers always record the arrest type correctly when they fill out police reports.

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“It’s kind of muddy,” Barnes said. “It depends on how that officer checks fields in the report, and did they check it right. So it’s kind of a hard topic for us to be able to say, ‘Hey, that may not be 100 percent good data,’ because when you have 500-something employees checking these boxes, there’s unfortunately room for error.”

Officers may be confused about which box to check partly because offenders who receive a citation for marijuana possession are in fact briefly taken into police custody. Barnes said police are required under state law to take any marijuana offender to the county jail to be photographed and fingerprinted, after which the person is released with a citation. The difference, he said, is that people who receive a citation are released immediately afterward, whereas people arrested “on view” are typically left in jail for some period of time.

Asked whether the lowest-level marijuana offenders marked as “on view” arrests in 2019 did in fact spend time in jail, Barnes said the department could not “give a solid answer.”

The police department did not respond to follow-up questions from the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network about the accuracy of Chief Humphrey’s public statement or the department’s level of confidence in the accuracy of its own data.

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The data in the FBI’s file is drawn from local law enforcement reports. The Little Rock Police Department sends its arrest data on a monthly basis to the Arkansas Crime Information Center, a state agency, which then sends the data on to the FBI. The FBI annually publishes a file compiling crime data from thousands of local agencies across the U.S. As of June 18, the most recent publicly available annual file was for 2019.

Ken Richardson, the city director who sponsored the recent ordinance, has been pushing the board to adopt such a policy for years. (Two earlier attempts failed, in 2018 and 2019.) Richardson said both Humphrey and his predecessor, Kenton Buckner, told him there were few if any people being jailed for marijuana possession alone in Little Rock. But the department has produced few solid numbers in response to his questions, he said.

“They’re really secretive about telling us [the breakdown], or they’ll tell us ‘That’s not the only reason [offenders] are in the county jail,’ ” Richardson said. “They always say there’s accompanying charges.”

A February memo sent to city board members by City Manager Bruce Moore said the police department could not determine how often a marijuana offense is accompanied by another offense. “There is no way of telling whether the marijuana possession charge is the only charge in the arrest,” it says.

But the publicly available FBI data file does contain this information. The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network filtered the 736 marijuana possession arrests recorded in the 2019 FBI file to remove any associated with an additional criminal offense. About half, 369, were associated with no other crime, with the exception of a drug paraphernalia offense in some cases.

Richardson questioned whether the department had really deprioritized marijuana to the extent stated by the chief. “If that’s their approach, then why [did] they have a problem with codifying it?” he asked.

Racial disparities

The FBI data file includes information from almost every local law enforcement agency in the state. In 2019, there were approximately 3.8 marijuana-related arrests for every 1,000 people in Arkansas. Little Rock’s rate was only slightly higher, at about 4.2 arrests per 1,000 residents.

Little Rock’s marijuana enforcement as a whole is less aggressive than many places in Arkansas, the data shows. Some cities, such as Jonesboro and Conway, arrest far more people per capita. But the racial disparities in Little Rock are striking. The arrest rate for marijuana-related offenses for Black residents in Little Rock in 2019 was 8.2 arrests per 1,000 residents. The rate for whites was just 1.2 per 1,000 residents. (These numbers exclude Latino/Hispanic people of any race; the arrest rate for Hispanic residents of Little Rock was 1.8 per 1,000.)

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The disparities are similar when looking at just the lowest-level offenses. Out of the 322 possession-only arrests in 2019 that involved less than one ounce of marijuana (and no other drug or other criminal offense), 273 were Black and just 36 were white.

The Little Rock Police Department did not respond to requests for comment on the racial breakdown of the arrest data.

Such patterns are not unique to Little Rock, though the disparity in the city is larger than the state average. Statewide, the per capita arrest rate for Black people (9.1 per 1,000 residents) was about three times higher than for whites (3.1 per 1,000 residents). Nationally, Black people were more than 3.6 times as likely to be arrested as whites, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report based on 2018 data.

Richardson said the Little Rock disparities were “disturbing” and reinforced his concern that the lack of an official policy, until recently, may have resulted in marijuana laws being “selectively enforced.”

“It could be based on race, it could be based on class, it could be based on a number of things,” he said. “If we don’t have a governing policy, I can get pulled over for the same amount of marijuana [that] you get pulled over for, and you can be cited and released, and I can be arrested and transported to jail.”

Being arrested, even for a minor offense, can have major consequences, Richardson said. A misdemeanor marijuana charge could cause a student to lose access to Pell grants or a worker to lose his or her job. Fines and suspended drivers licenses can create spiraling financial hardships for some defendants.

Arresting low-level marijuana offenders is “not an appropriate use of our police resources,” he said. “We should be using resources to address the violent crime that we all seem to be so concerned about.”

Enforcement

At the May 18 meeting, the city board passed the ordinance 7-3, with directors Joan Adcock, Lance Hines and BJ Wyrick voting no. Some directors, along with Chief Humphrey, expressed concern that it would send a message that smoking marijuana in Little Rock would be effectively legalized.

But Humphrey also said the ordinance wouldn’t change department practices: “We’re already doing it, so it’s not going to affect us either way,” he said.

When presented with the numbers showing the police department does in fact appear to be physically arresting large numbers of people for minor marijuana offenses, Barnes, the police spokesman, acknowledged the department may need to improve its ability to track such information.

“I think there’s probably some things that we’re going to have to start reviewing … now that we have an ordinance in place that’s governing this,” he said. “We’re going to have to maybe change some of the tactics and the way we keep our data analytics to make sure we’re following the ordinance.”

The department did not respond to follow-up questions about how the new ordinance will be implemented, how progress will be tracked, and whether officers will undergo training to ensure compliance.

The existence of an official policy does not necessarily mean it will be followed. Fayetteville implemented a similar ordinance in 2008, but a report published by an activist group in 2019 showed the city’s annual marijuana arrests dramatically increased over the decade after the ordinance was passed.

In 2008, Fayetteville police arrested 50 people for misdemeanor marijuana possession alone. In 2018, the number was 192 — almost four times as many. (Marijuana possession arrests fell significantly in the months after the report was released.)

Richardson said he and others in Little Rock will work to ensure the city’s new ordinance is enforced. “We’ll have eyes on it. It won’t happen in the dark,” he said.

Still, he expressed frustration that the police department seemed resistant to change.

“Whenever you ask for an evaluation or an objective assessment of how we utilize our police resources, it’s always couched as if you’re anti-police,” Richardson said. “And that’s not the case. We ask that of our public works department, our parks and recreation — every department in the city with the exception of the police. They seem to be a sacred cow when we start talking about assessing and looking at funding and patterns of practice … and what impact it is having on our community.”

This story is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.