Little Rock board rejects leniency policy for marijuana arrests

Police chief, mayor voiced their opposition before vote

Ward 2 City Director Ken Richardson is shown in this file photo beside a portion of his proposed ordinance that would have made misdemeanor marijuana arrests the lowest priority for the Little Rock Police Department.

The majority of members on the Little Rock Board of Directors turned down a proposal Tuesday to create a new policy that would have made misdemeanor marijuana arrests the lowest priority of the Little Rock Police Department.

Police Chief Kenton Buckner said that while he appreciated the intent behind Ward 2 City Director Ken Richardson's proposed ordinance, he was against it because of the unintended consequences that would occur as a result.

Mayor Mark Stodola also spoke against the ordinance and said Pulaski County prosecutor Larry Jegley wasn't in favor.

The board heeded the concerns of those officials and rejected the proposal with a 6-2 vote Tuesday night. Voting in favor were Richardson and Vice Mayor Kathy Webb. Voting against were City Directors Doris Wright, Joan Adcock, B.J. Wyrick, Gene Fortson, Erma Hendrix and Dean Kumpuris. City Director Capi Peck voted present, and City Director Lance Hines was absent.

Residents showed up in large numbers to beg the board to vote for Richardson's proposal. The boardroom was overflowing, with residents standing in the aisle and lined up out into the hallway. Twelve signed up to speak about the proposal.

Richardson said he wanted police to stop making arrests on low-level marijuana charges against adults because it wastes time and taxpayer money and often results in the loss of employment and educational opportunities for the offender.

But Buckner said that once word got out that officers couldn't do anything if they smelled marijuana on a person, criminals in the city would take advantage of that. He added that the smell of marijuana gives officers probable cause to search a vehicle, and sometimes those searches lead to arrests on bigger charges, such as felon in possession of a gun, or drug busts.

Buckner also sought to knock down Richardson's assertion that misdemeanor possession arrests contributed to jail overcrowding.

"I challenge you to find anyone sitting in the Pulaski County jail today solely for use of marijuana," Buckner said last week when the ordinance was first discussed by the board.

Attorney Omavi Shukur spoke Tuesday to say he accepted that challenge. He gave the board the court docket sheets for 20 individuals who were arrested by Little Rock police and sentenced to jail time solely for possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana.

"This includes one man who was sentenced to 300 days in jail," Shukur said.

He added: "People cannot get jobs and housing because of these marijuana arrests, and we have a shortage of police officers. This is about a police officer not spending time investigating solely a misdemeanor marijuana offense when there's a domestic violence call, when there's property crime. This is about misplaced priority. ...This is a test to see how responsive our city board is to its constituents. This is a chance for you to be heard. Are you going to ignore the hard proof that people do serve time in jail on misdemeanor marijuana offenses?"

Last year, the Little Rock Police Department made 824 marijuana-possession arrests, according to the department. That includes both misdemeanor and felony offenses. The department's records management system does not distinguish between the levels.

Such arrests have nearly doubled since 2013.

In 2013, 2014 and 2015, such arrests totaled between 390 and 460, but they jumped to 768 in 2016 and more than 800 last year. That's an 81 percent increase in the four-year span.

Both Eureka Springs and Fayetteville instituted low-priority policies for their police departments more than 10 years go after the majority of voters approved the idea via ballot initiatives.

It hasn't affected the number of arrests.

According to Fayetteville Police Department data, the number of marijuana possession arrests was at 402 in 2005, but that was up to 691 last year.

At least 15 other cities in the United States have adopted low-priority policies in regards to marijuana possession. About half of them are in states that have since legalized marijuana completely.

Metro on 06/06/2018