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Marijuana smell from cars is the least of the Philadelphia Police Department’s problems | Editorial

The department is mired in a multitude of problems. Marijuana stops shouldn't be one of them.

A Philadelphia police investigator examine the scene of a triple shooting in the Graduate Hospital Neighborhood in August.
A Philadelphia police investigator examine the scene of a triple shooting in the Graduate Hospital Neighborhood in August.Read moreMichael Perez / File Photograph

The Philadelphia Police Department is mired in a multitude of problems, from claims of racist social media posts and behaviors to sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuits. One such lawsuit lead to the resignation of Police Commissioner Richard Ross.

At the end of October, Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Carl Holmes was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting three female officers. Just a week later, a municipal court judge dismissed charges against a defendant because a Philadelphia police officer punched him in the face and head during the arrest -- especially concerning because the officer’s past with use of force.

These troubling events provide a long list of obvious and built-in priorities for the next police commissioner -- which also includes a spate of gun violence across the city that has left children injured or dead. It also leads to a natural question: Why the apparent obsession with police spending time and manpower stopping and searching cars that smell like marijuana?

According to new data from the Philadelphia Defenders Association, in the first quarter of 2019, Philadelphia police searched 3,300 drivers because of an odor of marijuana came out of their car. Contraband was found in fewer than 10% of searches. The vast majority of the drivers searched -- 84% -- were black.

The thousands of searches based on marijuana odor represent only a fraction of the close to 40,000 vehicle stops that the Philadelphia police conducted every month in the first half of 2019 -- 10,000 more stops per month than last year. But the odor excuse is particularly curious considering that in 2014 Philadelphia decriminalized possession or smoking of small amounts of marijuana. Critics suggest that the police are falsely listing the smell of marijuana as a basis to do more searches.

» READ MORE: As Philadelphia aims to curb racial disparities, why are police stops of black drivers skyrocketing?

According to the city, the police department is looking into the reason behind the increase in stops. Meanwhile, acting Commissioner Christine Coulter instituted a new procedure that requires officers to have a supervisor verify the smell before searching a vehicle, a similar procedure used in driving under the influence searches.

The fact that the police department needed an outside source to inform them on how officers spend their time is concerning. But more importantly, it calls into question how police are deploying resources. This is, after all, a city in which most people who shoot someone are never caught. In 2018, the clearance rate -- the percent of cases that result in an arrest -- for homicides was 47% and for nonfatal shootings was 23%.

» READ MORE: You are more likely to win a coin toss than be caught for murder in Philadelphia | Editorial

Police say they are reviewing the analysis that the Defender’s Association conducted. They further argue that vehicle searches are a way to remove illegal guns from the street. And yet, exact data on gun retrievals are not available. A recent court report on stop-and-frisk showed the police recovered guns in only half a percent of all pedestrian stops.

There will likely be no announcements on the process before a commissioner is selected. But whoever Mayor Kenney ultimately chooses to lead the police department, we hope they understand that Philadelphia’s taxpayer dollars are better utilized attempting to solve homicides and shootings than profiling black drivers.