The Durham City Council has been vocal in recent months about misdemeanor marijuana offenses, especially after multiple community groups including the FADE Coalition called for them to take action and deprioritize the enforcement of such crimes.
It’s the right step forward. It’s a necessary step forward. And Durham’s chief of police says that while it was a general practice before, officers will now be required to issue citations for misdemeanor marijuana offenses.
“This is something that we’re supporting wholeheartedly to give people the opportunity to stay out of the criminal justice system,” police chief C.J. Davis told the council on Thursday during its work session.
The decision to change two general orders (essentially internal documents that govern practices) in the Durham Police Department to help solidify the department’s practices was made after the council directed City Manager Tom Bonfield to talk with Davis about deprioritizing such offenses.
“We looked at the general order so we could ensure consistency in how the general order is applied,” Davis says. “Because of the fact that the general order is basically written in a way that it makes a recommendation, it doesn’t address the requirement for officers and it sort of leaves discretion more in a gray here”
So instead of recommending the officers issue a citation, it was changed to make it a requirement.
“We tweaked the general order[s] for both the citation issuance of misdemeanor marijuana cases for all persons and also the diversion program,” she says. “So the effort is to ensure that when officers identify an individual in possession of small amounts of marijuana there’s no option there. If they meet the criteria either they go through the misdemeanor diversion program or they’re issued a citation. The diversion program adjustment was really minor.”
Durham has two misdemeanor diversion programs—one for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, and one for eighteen- through twenty-one-year-olds. The first program (for the sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds) was started in 2014. Since then it has expanded and seen success. Counties across the state (not just the Triangle) have modeled their misdemeanor diversion programs off of Durham’s.
Davis said she’s been talking with officers in meetings and during classes to let them know about the change. She added the department is keeping data on all misdemeanor cases, not just marijuana offenses, to see how the results measure over time.
Diversion programs and deprioritizing marijuana arrests have been hot button issues in Durham over the past few years, and for a good reason. Back in September, when the council directed Bonfield to meet with Davis, the disparities in misdemeanor marijuana offenses were staggering. Randy Chambers, the president of Self-Help Credit Union told the council that marijuana arrest data from 2013 to 2015 was “troubling.”
"Approximately seventy-nine percent of all misdemeanor marijuana enforcement violations are for African-American males between the ages of sixteen and thirty-four," Chambers said. "Equally disturbing is how those charges are treated. Only one quarter of the folks charged with this misdemeanor in 2015 were issued a citation. Meaning the other three-quarters were taken in and arrested."