More than a thousand people in Dallas every year are arrested and thrown in jail for carrying small amounts of marijuana.
Now, Dallas Police Chief David Brown wants to stop that, saying his officers are stretched thin and their time is better spent elsewhere.
Brown's department is floating a "cite and release" policy that will direct officers to issue a citation only, but not lead to an arrest record.
Still, after hours of debate on Tuesday, the Dallas city council's Public Safety Committee decided to not recommend the policy. They voted to bring the issue before the full city council soon for a debate, although a date has not been set.
The National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws reports 17 states and Washington, DC have decriminalized some pot possession, meaning first time offenses for small amounts are treated like a traffic ticket, handled in court.
That is not the case in Texas. Even if Dallas moves forward with the cite and release plan, a judge can still issue hefty fines of up to $2,000 and also possible jail time. However, an officer who stops a person carrying less than four ounces of pot for recreational use will be directed to not arrest the person.
Brown supports this policy from a practical standpoint, but he says he has mixed-feelings on the impact from a crime-fighting standpoint.
Dallas police arrest about 120 people every month for low-level pot possession, that's about 1,200 misdemeanor marijuana arrests a year.
In every case, an officer must call a supervisor, generally a sergeant, to join him in the field to help monitor the field drug test. Then, the individual is arrested and taken to jail.
The whole process, according to Deputy Chief Gary Tittle, “takes about an hour. Sometimes more than that, depending on how far the shift supervisor has to drive to get to the scene.”
Tittle says cite and release would cut the time in half, since there’s no driving to jail or booking process.
That allows officers to get back on the streets faster to help respond to other 911 calls.
“We believe it’ll shave 30 minutes off all of those low-level drug calls,” Tittle said. “So those officers will be back in the 911 pool responding to other issues faster.”
More than any other reason, Brown says this is strongest argument in favor of the policy.
“Thirty minutes is important. To save that time and get the officers back on the beat so they can handle more important issues,” he said. “There’s no victim when someone has a little bit of marijuana, it’s not the best use of the resources we have.”
Councilman Philip Kingston, who serves on the Public Safety Committee, agreed.
“We just heard from David Brown that he's stretched to the limit, and response times are suffering," said Kingston. "And so when I see the number of arrests for marijuana-only, I think [DPD] is wasting those resources. That is contributing and compounding the problem of low response times.”
Kingston also argued that “it’s not justice” to arrest someone and bring them to jail for carrying small amounts of weed. He said this crime disproportionately impacts Dallas’ “poor and minority communities, and I don’t see the justice in starting a criminal record for someone for just this.”
Brown also argued that the policy will help alleviate overcrowding in the county jail.
“We have about 5,000 jail beds. We make 50,000 arrests each year,” he said.“
“It’s just so damn practical” to not arrest low-level drug offenders, he added.
But even the chief admits there are drawbacks. too.
It’s a well-worn crime-fighting tool, he said, to arrest someone on a low-level crime if you suspect they have knowledge or involvement in bigger crimes. The process of being booked into jail and interrogated by police can crack open much bigger cases.
Under the cite and release policy, though, if someone is detained only for marijuana, officers will be directed to let that person go.
“That marijuana-only arrest might be the only thing we have to bring someone in and interview them, but it might break open a case on a murder. Or a robbery. Or a terrorism case,” Brown said. "It may be the only reason you have at first to bring someone in. So we can see both sides of this from a law-enforcement standpoint.”
There’s also the issue of people not showing up to court, and adding to the backlog of active warrants in Dallas County.
“It’s my anticipation that if DPD officers continue to write tickets for marijuana possession, a lot people won’t show up to their court date,” Kingston said. “I hope we can agree that we’re not going to come beat you over the head for not expending valuable police resources to find somebody who had a low-level marijuana possession ticket. But I don’t know who else will make the pledge with me.”
Brown says his department isn't suggesting carrying marijuana should go unpunished, but that it's a bigger priority to have his officers handle more important business.
“We have a lot of debate to come,” said Brown, adding that based on what he heard at the committee meeting “you can argue both sides of this issue and win.”