Two Sentences Speak Volumes About Race and Pot Arrests in Philly

At the last public hearing of the Philadelphia City Council regarding the now tabled bill 140001-A, a measure sponsored by Councilman Jim Kenney which would end the practice of mandatory custodial arrest for marijuana possession, an attorney who works with the ACLU to monitor the Philadelphia Police’s use of investigative stops, searches commonly called “stop and frisks,” testified before the Committee on Law and Government about the connection between petty marijuana arrests and racially disparate interaction with police.


Paul Messing of the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, who works with the ACLU of Pennsylvania in monitoring Philadelphia Police compliance with provisions mandated in a 2011 consent decree.

Councilman Kenney described to the committee how in every district, irrespective of the racial demographics, blacks are the overwhelming majority of those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Paul Messing, an attorney who monitors the Philadelphia Police and provides reports to the court according to terms set out in the 2011 consent decree known as the Bailey Agreement, gave testimony further highlighting the color lines in both marijuana arrests and “stop and frisk” incidents.

Messing, in response to questions from committee member Councilman Dennis O’Brien about whether some of the disproportion could be attributed to “police reporting,” explains to the committee:

“In predominantly black districts, ALL of the marijuana arrests were black. In predominantly white districts, MOST marijuana arrests are black.”

Messing drove the correlation home further throughout his testimony. Among those 43% of searches conducted without probable cause, about 4% result in arrest, said Messing. Of that 4%, the majority are marijuana arrests, the majority in turn of which, as we have just heard, are of black people.

About Kenneth Lipp

Kenneth is a writer and researcher. He’s from Alabama, and will not apologize for it. He moved to Pennsylvania in 2012, but has been in love with Philadelphia since a late-night stroll down Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum in July of 2011 with the love of his life. He is interested in telling Philadelphia’s dynamic and absolutely unique stories with the zeal of a constantly enamored newcomer. Kenneth is also passionate about government transparency and protection of whistleblowers, most notably PFC Chelsea Manning. His research and reporting on law enforcement and surveillance have been featured in various publications, including Rolling Stone (Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters) and Popular Science (Boston Tested Crowd-Watching Software That Catalogues People's Skin Color). His training is in both genetics and history and he likes the joke about being a helicase and unzipping your “genes.” He’s driven to know, and thinks you can handle, the truth. Follow him on Twitter @kennethlipp.

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