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Pot fines issued regularly by NOPD, overall arrests drop dramatically

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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

A snapshot of New Orleans crime stats shows officers give out nearly four citations for simple marijuana possession a day since an ordinance lessening the penalties was passed last summer.

The ordinance allows some people caught with a misdemeanor amount of marijuana to get a citation and fine instead of jail time. 

In 2009, NOPD arrested and booked 3,238 people for simple marijuana possession, a charge that used to include jail time. But since 2010, when the city put in place a policy of issuing citations for simple possession instead of jailing offenders, that number has dropped significantly.

In 2014, officers issued 712 summons and arrested 848 simple possession offenders. In 2015, 883 summons and 692 arrests were issued by NOPD.

Officers issued 518 summons and arrested 303 for simple possession, from January to June 2016.  

During the first nine months of the new ordinance, officers issued 991 summons and arrested 412. 

Depending on the circumstances, NOPD officers have the discretion on whether they will issue a citation or arrest someone for simple marijuana possession. 

To compare the numbers, in 2009 officers arrested an average of nine people a day for simple possession, and now NOPD officers issue an average of four citations a day and make one arrest.

The numbers provided by NOPD include anyone arrested for possession of marijuana, even if there is another charge as well.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry pushed for the change in order to free up officers to deal with more violent crimes. 

"Certainly those numbers look promising," she said. "It looks the ordinance is working as it should and police are using their time more wisely than dragging people into jail for marijuana possession."

But while the city touts its progressive measure toward marijuana possession, attorney Bobby Hjortsberg believes it does not necessarily lead to a drop in crime. 

"I'm not sure you're going to see a direct correlation with decreasing crime, but it's certainly freeing up officers to handle other matters and not have to go through the process of arresting someone," Hjortsberg said. "As a country as a whole, we are accepting that marijuana is not the serious crime that it was once charged as in this state. I think the city is trying to adapt to that mindset."

Adapting to changes is what Metropolitan Crime Commission's Rafael Goyeneche argues the city is not doing. He agrees with and commends city leaders for allowing officers to issue citations for simple marijuana possession to free up their time, but he said the city's violent crime problem will not get corrected until the NOPD's lack of manpower is addressed. 

"They are in the same manpower hole that they were four years ago with this. They haven't climbed out. That's why I'm saying the only hope for more immediate relief is on the retention side. That's going to mean giving a financial incentive for officers who are contemplating leaving," Goyeneche said. 

Records from NOPD show while violent crime is up, the number of arrests are down significantly. Arrests decreased by more than half since 2013 from 48,859 to 21,884 arrests in 2016.

Goyeneche said arrest numbers are down not because of decreasing crime but because there are not enough officers able to respond quickly enough to every call. 

"The political decisions to freeze hiring seven years ago has resulted in a critical shortage of officers. So the police department is basically a reactive department. They are literally running from one call for service to the next. They are not able to do any proactive policing, and that is in large part responsible for some of the escalations in violence," Goyenche said.  

Louisiana State Police help patrol much of Orleans Parish, and troopers still enforce the state law for simple marijuana possession. During the first nine months the New Orleans ordinance has been in place, troopers have physically booked or released on a summons more than 250 people in Orleans Parish. 

Goyeneche argued the Orleans Parish Prison may only hold two to three inmates for simple marijuana possession at a time, but misdemeanor offenders are released in a matter of days. 

"That jail isn't a marijuana motel. It's not populated with low level drug users. 60 percent of that inmate population are felony pretrial offenders," he said. 

NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison was not available for comment. 

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