A new report out this week ranks Iowa dead last in the nation when it comes to racial disparity in arrests for marijuana possession. The study comes from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The report is based on numbers from the 2010 US Census and 2010 FBI crime statistics gathered from law enforcement agencies nationwide.
According to the ACLU's report, Dubuque County has Iowa's worst disparity rate, with a black person 10 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana, but much of that depends on how one looks at the numbers.
Dubuque police spokesperson Lt. Scott Baxter said the department isn't as much concerned with the report's findings as it is with the report's methods.
"It's concerning to us, not because we believe it's happening but because it's being reported as happening and, in reality, we don't believe it is," Baxter said.
According to the report, nationally, a black person is 3.7 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana, according to arrest rates by racial population. In Iowa, that number rises to 8.34 times as likely, the highest statewide average in the country, according to the report.
Baxter said Dubuque's County's number and rank is an example of number manipulation, whether or not intentional.
In 2010, according to the report, 46 of Dubuque County's 2,535 black people were arrested for marijuana possession. That's 1.8 percent of the black population.
Compare that to 161 of the county's 88,874 white people arrested for the same offense. That's 0.18 percent of the white population.
The numbers are less than two percentage points apart, but that also means black people were arrested 10 times more often compared to population size.
Baxter said the department refutes the claim that officers are targeting black people for marijuana or any crime, citing its rigorous internal affairs professional standards division that polices the department for such actions.
"I'm not here to tell you that we're not out there aggressively enforcing our drug laws," he said Tuesday. "It's a huge problem, but we're certainly not doing it based on race, religion, any other protected class. We're doing it based on the fact that people are out there, breaking the law, possessing, using drugs."
He said the department's concerns with the report also stem from what he said are inconsistent FBI crime statistics, that law enforcement agencies across the US don't report them in the same way, thus making the drawing of comparisons inaccurate.
"Yet another consideration is poverty levels among each segment of the population and how that likely impacts drug choice/use," he wrote in a follow-up e-mail. "There are just too many variables that call into question the validity of some aspects of this study."
Lynn Sutton is Dubuque's first and only black city council member. She said people from all races and cultures are doing illegal drugs, and that is the problem.
"Drugs are not a color issue, they're a people issue, but this report gives a very unsettling and misleading thought that it could just be a certain race, and it's not about that and it shouldn't be looked at that," the councilwoman said Tuesday.
Numbers from the federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health show about equal marijuana use by both blacks and whites. Data from the study in 2002 through 2011 show approximately 10 percent of both groups nationwide reported using illicit drugs. Results of that study are HERE.
Baxter said he encourages anybody who believes Dubuque police are engaging in any kind of racial profiling to file a complaint with Dubuque's Human Rights Commission and/or the police department's internal affairs professional standards division. He said the department takes all complaints very seriously.
"Racial profiling is closely (and voluntarily) monitored by our agency via random/internal audits and is also a frequent training topic," Baxter wrote. "We make every effort to be transparent and encourage those who feel they've been mistreated to report the incident to us and/or Human Rights, DCAP, the State, etc."
One of the recommendations the ACLU report made in order to help solve this apparent disparity is to legalize and decriminalize marijuana.
"Frankly, that's comparable to making silverware illegal to combat our nation's obesity problem," Baxter wrote. "Or banning motor vehicles since crashes cost us around 35,000 lives annually in this country. You get the point."
The ACLU of Iowa describes itself as, "a non-profit, non-partisan organization that fights to advance civil liberties for all."
It goes on to say it has, "worked to assure the rights of all Iowans-from atheists to devout Christians, from labor unions to businesspeople
and more-to make sure the constitutional rights of all are preserved."
The ACLU's full report and summary can be found HERE.
In his follow-up email, Lt. Baxter said, in part:
"Yet another consideration is how simple possession of marijuana is often the result of the arrestee being taken into custody for another offense (i.e.: we arrest someone for OWI and then find marijuana on their person); so, a lot of times the marijuana charge develops from the investigation of another offense or offenses. OR, the simple marijuana charge could be the result of a plea deal watered down from a more serious drug offense - just another consideration."
The ACLU study took the rate of arrests-per-population and put it into a per-100,000-people rate, so Dubuque County's 2010 marijuana arrest rate of 46 of the county's 2,535 black people, (which is 1.8145 percent of the population), became 1,815 arrests per 100,000, a framing technique Baxter says distorts the real picture.
"If we use the ACLU/FBI-UCR/Census data (despite concerns already discussed), we can still illustrate how using the 100,000 population inflation causes the arrest rates to appear unjustly skewed when in reality, the arrest percentages are generally within 3% or less of each other based on overall population by race:
2010 = 1.8% black; .18% white
2009 = skipped in the ACLU report for unknown reason
2008 = .89% black; .039% white
2007 = 2.3% black; .07% white
2006 = 3.6% black; .07% white
2005 = 1.3% black; .07% white
2004 = .26% black; .10% white
2003 = 1% black; .08% white
2002 = .33% black; .07% white
2001 = 1.4% black; .12% white
"If you take a look at some of the other counties listed, you'll see exponential increases (often from 0 to several hundred) from one year to the next - how does that happen??? It looks very troubling until you realize it's a result of using the '100,000 person population' inflation versus figuring the actual percentage of simple marijuana arrests as it relates to the individual percentages of a race within the overall population."
KWWL spoke with Linn County sheriff Brian Gardner and Cedar Rapids spokesperson Sgt. Cristy Hamblin. Both responded similarly to Baxter, saying they don't believe their numbers reflect the immense racial disparity in marijuana-related arrests the ACLU's report shows.
The report showed the Iowa's top five counties for highest racial disparity in marijuana possession arrest rates are, in order, Dubuque, Woodbury, Johnson, Linn and Clinton counties.
In its report, the ACLU said states and their various law enforcement agencies are wasting taxpayer dollars pursuing arrests and incarcerating people for simple marijuana possession offenses, citing that as another reason for the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana.