FAYETTEVILLE -- The city's police have made strides reducing misdemeanor marijuana arrests since more than a year ago but there's still room for improvement, according to a report released Thursday from a nonprofit advocacy organization.
The city's police chief says his officers have made marijuana enforcement the lowest priority but have to work within the confines of the law.
The Arkansas Justice Collective released a follow-up to a June 2019 report on marijuana arrests made by the city's police. Stephen Coger with the collective said the department was responsive to the feedback from the report and residents, but the city isn't immune to racial disparities in law enforcement. The new report shows there was a significant drop in marijuana arrests and prosecutions after the first report was released, which displays the amount of discretion officers and prosecutors have in handling such offenses, he said.
"The institutional motivation to improve only came after we went public," Coger said. "We want to see us do even better."
The report shows arrests and citations for misdemeanor marijuana ranged from about 25 to 40 per month from January to June 2019. From July to December 2019, the numbers ranged from about 5 to 20.
Police Chief Mike Reynolds said since he took over as chief in September 2019 he has made it clear to officers they can issue a warning for marijuana possession only and seize the evidence for destruction. The policy stems from a 2008 city ordinance instructing officers to make marijuana possession enforcement a low priority.
Officers were made more aware of the ordinance after the report was released in June 2019, Reynolds said.
"For us to put that as a required read for all of our officers moving forward I think was very helpful," Reynolds said. "A lot of them certainly didn't work here when that ordinance was passed."
From the start of this year through Nov. 5, the city's police arrested one person for misdemeanor marijuana possession only and gave 15 citations. Through the same time period last year, there were 16 arrests and 89 citations. The number of arrests dropped 94% year to year, and citations dropped 83%, according to data posted to the city's website.
Arrests or citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession only amount to a fraction of a percentage of what the department does, Police Chief Mike Reynolds said.
"I don't know how I can make that any more of a lowest level law enforcement priority for us in one year," said. "I think that speaks volumes."
Arkansas Justice Collective ReportView
The report shows a demographic breakdown of arrests and citations for misdemeanor marijuana only offenses from Jan. 1, 2019 to June 30 this year. Sixty-one percent were of white people, 32% were of Black people and 6% were Latinx. The report doesn't provide the total number of arrests and citations for the time period, although raw data is available on the collective's website.
The city's population as of July 2019 was 87,590, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 76% percent of residents were white, 9% were Hispanic, 7% were Black, 4% were two or more races, 3% were Asian, 1% were Native American and a fraction were Pacific Islander.
The report says the city didn't follow four recommendations made in the 2019 report: end all misdemeanor marijuana arrests, form an advisory committee on fair policing, end the city's participation in the 4th Judicial District Drug Task Force and drop charges for anyone simply possessing marijuana.
Reynolds said officers can use discretion but cannot run afoul of the law regarding marijuana. He said the department has four advisory panels in the City Council, Civil Service Commission, the African-American Advisory Council and a chief's advisory council.
An hours-long meeting in August was held in which the council supported participation in the drug task force with a commitment from Reynolds to look at ways to better the program.
The new report makes additional recommendations, including repealing funding for a new police headquarters voters approved last year, hiring and training unarmed community caretakers, ensuring certain neighborhoods aren't inequitably policed, removing police from schools, having police not target people on probation or parole and having the city prosecutor implement alternative sentencing such as community work.
To read the report from the Arkansas Justice Collective, go to:
To see weekly summaries of Fayetteville police activity, go to:
Stacy Ryburn can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @stacyryburn.