Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy made a lot of headlines—and caused a lot of confusion—when he recently told reporters that the department was looking into the possibility of issuing citations to people caught with small amounts of marijuana (rather than hauling them to the station to be booked and possibly jailed).
“It’s not that we’re not going to make those arrests,” McCarthy said after a west-side antiviolence march on July 30. “It’s that we may issue summonses or tickets or take some other action.”
McCarthy was responding to Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, who had repeatedly called on him to change the department’s approach to people caught possessing marijuana. As she put it to us in an interview last month: “Stop arresting people for small amounts of drugs, because you’re wasting our time.”
McCarthy, however, said he wanted to keep making marijuana arrests because he believes in the broken windows theory—the idea that cracking down on small violations leads to reductions in violence and other serious crimes. But he also appeared to be agreeing with Preckwinkle that many low-level pot possessors shouldn’t be in jail.
Reporters were openly confused about McCarthy’s remarks and interpreted them differently. Some news outlets reported that the department was preparing to go easier on people caught with small amounts of pot. Others said Chicago cops were going to stop jailing people for marijuana possession. A few said the police were ready to stop arresting pot possessors altogether.
We contacted McCarthy spokeswoman Maureen Biggane for clarification. “It is certainly not the intention of the Chicago Police Department to stop enforcing the law,” she said in an e-mailed response.
However, she added, “the possibility of enforcement that does not involve a physical arrest as currently processed is being explored.”
Biggane said the details are still being fleshed out, and she didn’t rule out the possibility that the only changes would be administrative. “The offender may still be taken into the station, but the process would be different.”
In other words, the police department isn’t ready to commit to anything.