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Blacks disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession in Pinellas, Hillsborough counties

From left, St. Petersburg police officers Brian Burton, Matthew Stringfellow and Cody Lance, members of the Street Crimes Unit, examine a used syringe after an arrest at a home on 34th Avenue N, where crack pipes and multiple syringes were found.
From left, St. Petersburg police officers Brian Burton, Matthew Stringfellow and Cody Lance, members of the Street Crimes Unit, examine a used syringe after an arrest at a home on 34th Avenue N, where crack pipes and multiple syringes were found.
Published Sep. 28, 2014

Black people in Pinellas and Hillsborough are at least six times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white people.

It's not because of who smokes pot and who doesn't.

Federal surveys show that 10 to 12 percent of both races use marijuana at least once a month.

What does differ is how pot marketplaces unfold in various neighborhoods and how police agencies respond.

As a result, a mood-altering substance that many Floridians think should be legal generates criminals in one sector of the community while other people largely skate free.

"The harm is far greater than the harm marijuana ever did'' because citizens view the justice system as unfair, said Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who last month asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate similar imbalances in Fort Lauderdale.

"You cannot let one group of people play then punish the other people.''

Racial disparities in pot possession arrests is not a new topic. But the disparities are particularly pronounced in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, a Tampa Bay Times analysis found.

Nationwide, black people were 3.7 times as likely to be arrested from 2001 to 2010, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report based on FBI crime statistics and census data.

The 2013 disparity in Pinellas and Hillsborough was nearly double that, the Times analysis found.

One reason is open air drug dealing, said St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway.

In poor, black neighborhoods, cars, bicycles or pedestrians approach houses or street corners, sellers hand out the goods and frustrated citizens complain. Harder drugs like cocaine are also being sold and violence can erupt.

Police respond by putting extra resources into those neighborhoods.

"People want police action because you don't want to have to walk out of your house and walk through a bunch of drug dealers. That's why we get arrested more than whites, because we do it out in the open,'' said Holloway, who is black.

"On Snell Isle, I guarantee you you will not have white kids standing on the corner selling drugs. They will get paged and they will tell you where to meet someone. He may be selling drugs on Snell Isle, but he is doing it, I hate to say it, in a better way.''

Enforcement efforts should fall equally in all parts of town, said Kurt Donley, chairman of the St. Petersburg NAACP's criminal justice committee.

"If you hang out near a white, affluent high school and see two males in a car and pull it over, you are going to get plenty of drugs,'' said Donley, who is white. "You have Eckerd College named by the Princeton Review as one of the top five pot-friendly colleges in the country. Nobody is going in there arresting wealthy white kids.

"If all you do is fish in a black pond, you are going to get black fish.''

It starts early

Marijuana possession — though sometimes resulting in no more than a ticket and fine — can alter the course of life.

One joint can cost a person his driver's license. Three-quarters of an ounce constitutes a felony in Florida and can wipe out prospects for jobs, housing and higher education.

Disproportionate arrests start early, Pinellas Public Defender Bob Dillinger said. Last year, Pinellas authorities arrested 117 black youths for misdemeanor drug possession, compared to 200 white youths. Census data show there are four to five times more white youths than black ones.

"Research has shown that a child who touches the detention center for even one night is impacted for the remainder of their lives,'' Dillinger said. "We have awful racial disparity. The numbers speak for themselves.''

The statistics are worth discussing, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, but he sees no evidence that law enforcement officers arrest people based on race.

Possession arrests often stem from more serious crimes, like robbery, car theft or DUI, Gualtieri noted. Police search a suspect and out pops a joint or a bag. No one is being targeted, he said.

"I think the real test is how many people are booked and arrested when there is no other charge except marijuana,'' Gualtieri said. "It makes a huge, huge difference, and it's what I would want to know from a disparity standpoint."

To answer that question, the Times analyzed 2013 data from the St. Petersburg Police Department. A little over half of adult misdemeanor pot possession arrests were accompanied by other charges. But the rest were for possession only. In those cases, the black-white disparity still hovered above a ratio of 6-to-1.

For every 10,000 white residents in 2013, St. Petersburg police arrested about 15 on misdemeanor pot charges. For every 10,000 black residents, about 95 were arrested — six times the white rate.

The disparities for Clearwater and Pinellas County also topped 6-to-1. Largo's black-white ratio was roughly 12-to-1. Largo police did not comment.

Hillsborough County as a whole had an arrest disparity of 7-to-1. Tampa's number is harder to pinpoint because arrest data provided by Tampa police and the county Sheriff's Office differed.

According to the county numbers, Tampa's black-white arrest disparity is about 7-to-1. City data put it at about 5-to-1.

Regardless, "race does not play a role in any arrest in Tampa," police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. "People are arrested for breaking the law regardless of their race."

Likewise, Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon rejected any notion that citizens are specifically targeted because of their race.

"Sheriff David Gee requires all his deputies to act with a strong sense of honesty, morality, goodness and ethical character,'' Mc­Kinnon said.

Marijuana and the law is an evolving issue, McKinnon said.

"Many factors should be looked at, including what it is that society wants their law enforcement officials to enforce or not when it comes to this widely debated topic.''

Holloway, who took over the St. Petersburg department in August, said he is examining everything at the agency, including marijuana arrest rates.

The Times did not analyze Pasco or Hernando data, but the ACLU noted that both counties had black-white arrest disparities below the national average of 3.7. Florida's black-white ratio arrest was about 4-to-1.

Age differences might explain some imbalances. Pot use tends to be heaviest in people ages 18-45 and black communities on both sides of the bay are younger than white communities.

Still, disparities can spell trouble for law enforcement agencies if controversies arise. The U.S. Justice Department is currently taking a broad look at racial issues in Ferguson, Mo., and plans to branch out to five additional cities soon. Disparities in arrest data is one factor the agency examines, along with use of force, training and personnel practices.

"Policing that has a disparate impact on members of a particular race may be unlawful not only where it is intentional, but also where it is unintentional but avoidable,'' the Justice Department concluded this summer in a settlement with Newark, N.J.

Among other things, the settlement called for Newark police to wear body cameras.

Out in the open

In St. Petersburg, investigative techniques to combat open drug dealing lead to frequent police stops in neighborhoods with predominantly black residents.

Covert street crimes officers, driving run-of-the-mill cars, cruise by known drug sale locales looking for suspicious behavior.

Perhaps someone is driving too fast — buyers, as well as "mules" who deliver drugs to street sellers, often leave the area quickly after conducting business. Maybe someone delivers a package. Maybe money changes hands. Maybe a car is rented or registered to a person who lives outside the neighborhood.

The officer follows the car looking for any traffic infraction — speeding, seat belt, rolling stop — then radios to nearby uniformed teammates to pull the driver over.

A driver who seems clean often gets no more than a warning, but if the pungent smell of marijuana wafts from the car or the driver stuffs something under the seat, a search becomes legal.

Pedestrians and bikers near drug holes also can be searched if they break city ordinances.

"If you are pulled over for biking without a light, I would venture to say that 99 percent of those are south of Central Avenue,'' said Dillinger, the public defender. "Walking in the street when a sidewalk is available is 99.9 percent black.''

Though sellers are the main target, veteran street crimes Sgt. Marlon Heywood explained that arresting buyers can help nail traffickers.

"You need the guy to say he bought it from the dealer,'' Heywood said. "If you get one or two of them, then you can get the seller and have vice detectives get him to cooperate and work up to the suppliers.''

Sometimes, simple carelessness reigns.

One day last week, a black man was issued a notice to appear in court after a covert officer stopped by a drug hole and saw him sauntering along Third Avenue S with a marijuana joint tucked behind his ear.

His behavior — plus the presence of a police team in the area — added him to the statistics.

Contact Stephen Nohlgren at Contact Kameel Stanley at or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.