Downtown Minneapolis business owners concerned over MPD marijuana policy change

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A day after Minneapolis officials announced police are no longer going after low-level marijuana sales, some downtown business owners say they feel the plan is actually a step back.

Business owners say the sweeps that are at issue were very successful in curbing crime downtown by getting criminals and weapons off the streets. But others in the community agree with the chief, saying the sweeps unfairly impacted African-Americans and a better approach is needed.

“The number of African-American males who feel at a time that their only choice to survive and provide for themselves by selling drugs is something that deeply concerns me as a chief and as a citizen,” said Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arrandondo in Thursday’s news conference.

Chief Arrandondo's concern is prompted by findings from the office of Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Coriarty. She says that recent sweeps downtown not only targeted big-time drug dealers, but also those only selling a couple of grams of marijuana. Forty-six out of 47 of those arrested were African-American and charged with felonies. The reported disparity caused Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to decide police will no longer target low-level marijuana sales downtown and across the city.

“When the sweeps started, I was very happy about it, because it made it a safer place to be,” said Ken Sherman, a downtown Minneapolis property owner.

Sherman says he feels the move is a step backward.

“If you have eight or 10 young people, of whatever color, selling drugs in an open air market, which I believe is going to occur, no one is going to feel safe and it’s going to lead to other crimes,” he said.

Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association Chair Joe Tamburino agrees.

“It seems like what everyone is talking about is this is low-level,” said Tamburino. “It doesn’t matter if it’s low-level. When you start dealing on the street, violence happens.”

V.J. Smith with Mad Dads says the change in focus provides an opportunity. In Thursday’s news conference, Arradondo called on the community to help the low-level drug dealers get out of a life of crime.

“It’s not to see them in jail, but to see them doing something more positive,” said Smith. “Take this a step for the positive. The mayor saying, ‘Okay, I’m tired of seeing brothers go to jail.’ That’s good. Well, brothers take advantage of that, and do something else with your life.”

Smith said he works with another non-profit, North@Work, which aims to match black men over 25 years old with job opportunities. 

The enforcement change isn't a wholesale legalization of marijuana in the city and it is still illegal to possess or sell marijuana.

"I believe strongly that marijuana should be a lowest level enforcement priority and that it should be fully legalized at the state level," Mayor Jacob Frey said in a statement. "That support for full legalization, however, does not negate the need for our officers to make the necessary arrests to get guns off our streets and end the sale of life-threatening narcotic drugs like heroin." 

Statement from Chief Medaria Arradono:

"The Minneapolis Police Department does not make the laws officers are sworn to enforce. We do not have the option to pick and choose which laws we enforce. However, we can control how we, as a law enforcement agency, conduct details (operations targeting specific crimes and/or issues). In this particular instance, I’m only speaking about details; narcotics details in particular. In consultation with the Mayor’s Office, the MPD will no longer engage in any details specifically focused on “low level” marijuana.
Details focusing solely on “low level” marijuana offenses have produced an unintended consequence; one we must confront together as a community.
Recently criminal justice system workers studied downtown public safety details and a concern was raised over the disproportionate number of African American males arrested for small amounts of marijuana during these details. These 1st Precinct public safety details were focused on reducing violent crime and improving livability conditions, and I want to commend 1st Precinct officers for achieving the goals we set earlier this year. Their hard work and attention to detail has produced both a reduction in violent crime and an overall improvement in livability conditions in the Downtown area.
It is important to note the details did not focus on specific demographics. Instead, they focused on behaviors that drew officers’ attention to criminal activity. Every aspect of the MPD’s service is centered on Procedural Justice; treating people with respect, giving them voice, being neutral and building spaces of trust. The officers’ actions as we conducted these details were professional and legal.
However, as the Chief, I need to raise my voice when I see a concern that impacts our city as a whole.
I need to speak up when I see major problems, and from what I have observed, some of the conduct downtown is alarming and has prompted me to ask for a community “Call to Action.” I believe there is a large number of African American males who feel their only choice to survive and provide for themselves is by selling illegal narcotics. That deeply troubles me as a Chief and as a citizen. I never want the MPD to contribute to a sense of hopelessness to our community and I also know police cannot solve this problem alone. Solutions will require a collaborative effort to address these systemic challenges that, unfortunately, are still present in our great city."