- Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media
- Aldermen Walter Burnett Jr. and Danny Solis are following Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s lead in calling for fewer arrests for marijuana possession.
Alderman Danny Solis approached me in the lounge behind City Council chambers. “I thought you’d want to talk about marijuana,” he said.
That’s usually a pretty good guess.
“We’re working on it,” Solis said. “I’m sure you saw Sneed’s column.”
He was referring to Michael Sneed’s piece in the Sun-Times Wednesday morning. She reported that Mayor Rahm Emanuel was unhappy with the racial gap in who’s getting arrested for pot possession: “Emanuel, who is running for re-election, wants to know why police are choosing to arrest rather than ticket misdemeanor marijuana violators in African-American communities.” Sneed wrote that the mayor had given police Superintendent Garry McCarthy a month “to ensure that the law is applied evenly across the city.”
This wasn’t supposed to be necessary. Two years ago Solis led the City Council in passing an ordinance authorizing police to issue tickets to low-level pot possessors instead of taking them to the station for a full booking. In pushing for the new law, Solis cited the Reader‘s finding that 78 percent of all misdemeanor pot busts involved African-Americans.
After the ordinance was put on the books, the pace of these arrests slowed. But misdemeanor marijuana possession remains the most common cause of arrest in Chicago, to the tune of about 44 a day.
Last summer Solis vowed to get tough with the police department for not implementing the law. But after a private chat with Superintendent Garry McCarthy, he changed his tune and announced that the ordinance was slowly working. “I think it’s important to point out that what we have done has been very effective,” Solis said at a council budget hearing in November.
The arrests kept coming, but not everywhere. In white and affluent areas, pot was essentially decriminalized, while in black neighborhoods possessors often still landed in jail. As I reported a few weeks ago, in 2013, 78 percent of those arrested were black, 17 percent were Hispanic, and 4 percent were white—almost the same as before the ticketing ordinance was put into place.
Last week Roosevelt University researchers released a study that confirmed the arrest patterns and noted similar trends across the state. The study was widely reported in the media, and McCarthy’s office issued additional statements saying they were working to improve implementation of the ticketing measure.
This time that wasn’t enough for Solis, and with the mayor’s blessing he’s saying so out loud. “We had a meeting in the mayor’s office with his staff and the police brass,” Solis said. “I think the mayor wants some fairness.”
Veteran cops have told me that the ticketing process is too time-consuming and inefficient. Meanwhile, they say, arrests are happening in black areas because they’re saturated with officers responding to violence by stopping civilians on the street.
“I don’t think that explains it fully,” Solis said, arguing that officers need to be trained to switch from arrests to tickets. “I think the police superintendent needs to step up.”
As we spoke, Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. walked up. He said he was encouraged that police were making fewer arrests though more could be done.
At that point Mayor Emanuel himself hurried past, making a beeline for the nearby bathroom.
“Mr. Mayor!” Burnett called out.
Emanuel slowed up and extended his hand for a shake without coming to a complete stop.
Burnett clasped it. “Hey, I need to talk to you,” he said.
The mayor nodded. “You can follow me if you want.”
Burnett hedged. “Thanks, but I’ll wait.”
Emanuel chuckled as he scooted away.
Burnett admitted that it would have been the rare occasion when he had a captive audience with the mayor. “But I don’t need to talk to him while he’s holding his junk,” the alderman said. “I’m not that desperate.”