Little Rock's board rejects idea on pot offenses

In a split vote Tuesday evening, city directors rejected an ordinance that would have officially made misdemeanor marijuana offenses the lowest priority of the Little Rock Police Department.

Ward 2's Ken Richardson, who proposed the ordinance, was joined in supporting it by Erma Hendrix of Ward 1, Kathy Webb of Ward 3 and Capi Peck of Ward 4. Voting against it were Vice Mayor B.J. Wyrick, Lance Hines of Ward 5, Doris Wright of Ward 6, and at-large City Directors Joan Adcock and Gene Fortson. At-large City Director Dean Kumpuris was absent.

Police Chief Keith Humphrey spoke against the proposed ordinance. He said it would have put into writing what the Police Department is already doing, but he expressed concern that it could lead to people taking it as "carte blanche" to use marijuana and could result in a higher number of complaints against the department if it does arrest offenders. Officers already have discretion, he said.

"It is not smart for a police chief to put in policy that we will ... make these the lowest-level enforcement priority. Because officers do have discretion, you never want to take those discretions away from officers," he said, later adding that the department doesn't specifically de-prioritize other low-level offenses, such as going 5 miles over the speed limit.

Richardson and Humphrey went back and forth for much of the discussion, with Richardson saying he didn't understand why it couldn't be codified if it reflected what police officers were already doing. After the meeting, he said he wasn't sure if he would put forward the ordinance again or if he would address the issue another way.

Tuesday's vote marked the second time the city board rejected a de-prioritization ordinance -- Richardson put forward the same ordinance a little more than a year ago.

Richardson said he proposed the legislation because of the disproportionate effects of law enforcement.

"It has a disproportionate effect on minorities, especially poor minorities," he said.

Richardson also read aloud a brief letter in support of the ordinance from state Sen. Joyce Elliott, a Little Rock Democrat.

Humphrey said he understood Richardson's point as a black man, but that officers are already addressing violent crime as their top priority.

"You talk about what's a priority, we could put our emphasis somewhere else, right now we're sitting on a 6% decrease in violent crime and a decrease in overall crime, so apparently we have been putting our resources somewhere else," he said.

Resident Kenneth Grand, who is white, spoke in support of the ordinance by sharing how his arrest for having about 8 ounces of marijuana on him while a student at the University of Central Arkansas made him ineligible for Pell Grants.

"It really disrupted my life," he said.

After the meeting, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. didn't say whether he supported a de-prioritization ordinance, but he said that Richardson and Humphrey would work toward a way to prioritize the tenets of Richardson's ordinance as well as public safety.

At least two other Arkansas cities -- Fayetteville and Eureka Springs -- instituted similar policies more than a decade ago. But even in cities without a specific marijuana policy, officers are given discretion on whether to arrest offenders.

Over the past few years, Little Rock police have seen hundreds of incidents involving drug possession. In most, it wasn't the sole charge.

As of July 31, the Little Rock Police Department had in 2019 seen 340 incidents that listed misdemeanor drug possession as a charge, according to numbers police provided Tuesday under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. In 75 of those incidents, the drug charge was the sole charge, and 27 of those charged with drug possession alone were cited.

In 2018, there were 583 drug possession incidents; 121 of those reports listed drug possession as the lone charge, and 46 of those charged were cited. In 2017, there were 587 drug possession incidents, with 124 of them having the drug charge as the sole charge. Fifty-five of those charged with drug possession alone were cited.

Metro on 08/21/2019

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