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Despite decriminalization, report finds Black Pittsburghers more likely to be charged for marijuana

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Despite a 2016 ordinance to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Pittsburghers are still being charged for the offense — especially if they are Black. And the city's police department needs to step up efforts in tracking police conduct.

Those are the findings of a joint audit released Tuesday by City Controller Michael Lamb and the Citizens' Police Review Board.

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The city's 2016 ordinance allows for police to issue a citation, rather than a criminal charge, against people found with less than 30 grams of marijuana. The fine would be no more than $100. But the ordinance also allows police the discretion to charge an offense under a more serious state law ... and the audit found that Black Pittsburghers make up nearly 85% of those charged with a state offense.

Of the 139 arrests where marijuana possession was the only charge in 2020, nearly 90% of those charged were Black.

"In 2016 the City of Pittsburgh decriminalized the possession of a small amount of marijuana," Lamb said. "And yet as we've seen in this audit we know that that never happened at the state or federal level. And so police officers are given certain discretion as to how to charge when that happens."

Lamb said that leaving it up to police has resulted in Black people being charged more harshly than white people. And the audit recommends that the city issue a formal policy providing specific guidance on when officers should charge under the state offense.

Those disparities have been found nationwide — even though actual use of marijuana varies little across racial groups. And the audit found that racial disparities could be found across the board: Two-thirds of those arrested by Pittsburgh police in 2020 were Black, though Black people make up well under one-third of the city's population.

The report also showed that over 65% of those arrested by Pittsburgh police in 2020 were Black, and just over 31% were white.

The audit also recommends that the city take steps to improve oversight of, and transparency about, police misconduct. The audit noted that 54% of the complaints filed against police officers were determined to be "unfounded" by the city's investigators. But it said the bureau's annual reports should reflect how many officers had multiple complaints against them: "Showing outlier officers who receive a disproportionate number of complaints would be one way improve transparency," it argued.

But efforts to identify red flags in terms of police conduct have been frustrated by problems switching IT systems. The city has contracted withthe long-controversial vendor B-Three solutions to provide police software, and difficulties moving data to a newer system have prevented the city from providing more detailed and timely data on crime and police response, the audit found.

“They’ve come a long way on making more data open to the public, but these problems with B-Three are not new and outdated systems are holding the Bureau back,” Lamb said.