Former police chief blasts pot busts



Jody Weis
  • Kate Gardiner / FLICKR
  • Jody Weis
How much time and resources are Chicago police spending on busts for low-level marijuana possession? In 2009 it added up to the equivalent of 71 full-time officers doing nothing else the entire year, according to Jody Weis, the Chicago police superintendent from 2008 to 2011. That's on top of at least $78 million taxpayers cover for the court and jail costs that follow.

Weis says it's time to come up with new policies for pot possession.

"When you look at only about 5 percent of those [arrested] are convicted, you're throwing away a lot of man hours," says Weis, now the president of the Chicago Crime Commission.

Weis first weighed in on the topic in a recent interview with WBEZ's Rob Wildeboer, but he elaborated in a back-and-forth on this week's Chicago Newsroom program with me, Wildeboer, host Ken Davis, and Randall Strickland of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. You can see the whole show here.

The Chicago Crime Commission is studying how other cities have pursued "alternative sanctions" for marijuana possession, but Weis doesn't think criminal penalties should be removed. Fines of $200 to $500 would still send an important message, he says.

"It's a delicate issue because you don't want to say, 'OK, kids, it's OK to smoke dope,'" he says. "The discussion is very important to have, just from a financial standpoint—think of what those officers could be doing. But you also have to make sure that you have certain practices in place so that if we're going to do this, if we're going to make some of these changes, number one, don't put forth the image that we're decriminalizing."

But the other panelists and I argued that the bigger issue is the policing strategy that produces the grass gap—the fact that African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested; 89 percent of those convicted; and 92 percent of those jailed for pot possession in Chicago, though marijuana is used in communities across the city.

Weis says that's likely the result of aggressive patrolling in high-violence areas and a police culture that values arrest totals over crime prevention. But he agrees that it needs more discussion and scrutiny. "Part of preventing crime is developing a relationship with the community, and having the community trust the police," he says. "You know, 'We're not out here just collecting heads. We're here to try to keep you safe.'"

A proposal to let officers issue tickets instead of making full arrests is pending before the Chicago City Council, but it's unclear what will come of it. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has mostly dodged the issue, and substantial legislation generally goes nowhere in the council without his approval.

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