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Austin Police More Likely To Bust African-Americans For Pot (Updated)

Update:  The Texas Civil Rights Project wrote this letterto APD yesterday, requesting an explanation of its disproportionate pot busts within ten business days. Citing the statistics in the story below, project director Jim Harrington writes, “These facts raise serious questions, at least, as to whether APD officers are doing racial profiling or consistently exercising their discretion in favor of whites and against African Americans.”

Original Post (Nov. 10, 1:39 p.m.): Despite Austin’s progressive reputation, smoking marijuana in this city can still get you in trouble with the law. And data from the Austin Police Department shows that is more likely to happen if you are African-American. 

Eight percent of Austinites are African-American, according to U.S. Census figures. But data obtained through an open records request shows 28 percent of people busted by APD for marijuana possession since 2009 are black.

On the other hand, white people make up about half the city’s population, but they account for a third of APD’s marijuana possession cases.

“I think it’s pretty astonishing, frankly, to see the differential that’s going on here,” says Texas Civil Rights Project director Jim Harrington. “It sure raises some significant profiling questions, and I find it to be very troublesome.” 

A survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows African-Americans and whites do not differ substantially in marijuana use. In fact, white people are more likely to have experimented with pot at least once in their lifetime.

But Austin police department spokesperson Anthony Hipolito says officers are not trying to target black people.  

“I don’t know why it happens, but I can assure you that we don’t racial profile,” says Hipolito. “Officers are out there doing the best they can with the resources they have. And they do everything in their power to make sure the citizens of Austin are safe and their needs are met when we’re called upon.”

The Austin Police Department actually produces an annual racial profiling report. But it looks at traffic stops and searches, not marijuana cases. The last racial profiling report, released in March, says one in eight African-Americans was searched after being pulled over. That compares with one in 28 white drivers.

In September, APD revised its search policy to require officers obtain written permission from a supervisor beforehand. But Nelson Linder with the head of the NAACP says he’s still concerned.

“Whether you call it racial profiling or not, racial profiling occurs. I’m not saying it’s intentional but it does occur,” Linder says.

If that’s true, it might reflect disparities occurring in other jurisdictions across America. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report looking at FBI crime data found that across the United States, adult African-Americans were arrested on drug charges at rates up to five times as high as white adults in every year they examined, from 1980 to 2007. 

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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