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Suburban police overstate marijuana arrests to FBI

While pot arrests are up in the suburbs, police have been overstating the trend in figures filed with the FBI.
Top commanders acknowledge their departments have been counting all seizures of marijuana as arrests, even when people were sent on their way uncharged or only handed citations.

A marijuana plant
A marijuana plantRead moreTed S. Warren

While marijuana arrests are up in the Philadelphia suburbs, the spike is nothing like that being reported to the FBI.

In fact, marijuana arrests are being overstated to the FBI by nearly 70 percent, an analysis shows.

Suburban police say — and the FBI agrees — they are doing nothing wrong, but simply trying to more accurately reflect the number of people stopped with pot, even if they are never charged with possession.

Critics of the practice, however, say it undercuts the very purpose of the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, which has the stated objective "to generate reliable information for use in law enforcement administration, operation, and management."

"It should be accurate. You should be able to rely on it," said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, whose past criticism of the UCR program helped reform how how it handled rape statistics. "That's the point of it."

The overstatement of arrests came to light when the Inquirer and Daily News compared arrest figures filed with the FBI by police in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties with court cases brought against people for marijuana offenses.

The result: In two-thirds of the towns in the four counties, police have been reporting many more arrests to the FBI than actual court cases.

In participating in FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program, the four counties reported arresting 5,400 people in 2017 for having pot. Yet the court records show only 3,200 defendants faced criminal cases.

In interviews, police commanders defended their reporting practices.

They explained that their departments, for UCR purposes, consider as an arrest any time officers stop someone and seize marijuana, even if no charges are filed. They noted that rather than formally charging those stopped for pot, officers often issue a summary citation for disorderly conduct, a lesser charge. In its goal of downgrading the penalty of being caught with pot, an increasingly socially accepted drug, the choice is similar to Philadelphia's decision to move to issue $25 tickets for marijuana possession.

The FBI, when questioned about that approach to reporting pot arrests, said it was "acceptable." The bureau said local departments had wide latitude in how to count minor offenses, such as marijuana possessions. The FBI said more rigid rules apply to counting the most serious offenses — murder, rape, robbery, burglary, and others — which are referred to as Part I offenses in the UCR system.

Even so, police outside Philadelphia, in both the Pennsylvania suburbs and South Jersey, have been making dramatically more marijuana arrests in recent years.

Peter Reuter, a criminologist at the University of Maryland who has studied marijuana arrests, said the reporting practice was "terribly misleading."

"The public interprets the word arrest in a particular way," he said. "An arrest is different from a ticket."

Vincent DiBlasis, a retired chief inspector with the Philadelphia police and expert on policing statistics, said a charge of disorderly conduct hardly fit the act of possessing marijuana.

The Pennsylvania statute defining disorderly conduct makes no mention of drugs. It defines the offense as fighting, making "unreasonable" noise, using obscenities, or creating "a hazardous or physically offensive condition."

DiBlasis said the arrest numbers suggest a police force more aggressive than it is.

"I think if you're a police chief, you would like to have a lot of drug arrests by our officers," he said. "That in itself, that paints a picture that your police are out there doing your job. But disorderly conduct, well, that's a guy standing on a corner raising hell. That's no feather in your cap."

Police in New Jersey appear to be reporting only incidents that result in court charges as arrests, court and FBI figures show.

Not so in Abington Township, Montgomery County.

According to the FBI, Abington reported almost 350 pot arrests in 2016. Only 62 individuals faced court cases, while the vast majority of the others were let go with a warning or a ticket for disorderly conduct, according to Police Chief Patrick Molloy.

Last year, Abington police reported 361 marijuana-possession arrests to the FBI. Out of that group, police charged only 78 defendants with the crime, court records showed.

Molloy said his officers were following FBI procedures in counting citations as arrests.

Police in Lower Merion Township say they have been engaging in the same practice.

In 2017, Lower Merion police reported arresting 229 people for pot possession. However, court records show that the department brought the misdemeanor charge against only 24 defendants.

Police Superintendent Michael McGrath said that many people found with marijuana are simply stripped of the drug, cited for disorderly conduct, and "allowed to go about their business."

While that practice offers suspects a break, it also could create confusion about the prevalence of marijuana use in the township, he said. Reporting the stops as arrests to the FBI remedies that, he said.

If Lower Merion police only reported misdemeanor arrests, he added, “then I won’t have any clue how many people we are interacting with who have marijuana.”