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Denton police have cited a disproportionate number of people of color for marijuana

 Since Denton voters passed a marijuana decriminalization ordinance on Nov. 8, Denton police have reported finding nearly 100 people with a misdemeanor amount of weed.
AP file photo
Since Denton voters passed a marijuana decriminalization ordinance on Nov. 8, Denton police have reported finding nearly 100 people with a misdemeanor amount of weed.

Some were sitting at the park. Others were driving too fast. Several were the result of suspicious calls and officer-initiated contacts.

Since the marijuana decriminalization ordinance passed on Nov. 8, nearly 100 Denton residents have found themselves in similar situations when their interactions with Denton police began. Most were carrying a misdemeanor amount (under 4 ounces) of marijuana, or “green leafy substance” as Denton police refer to it in incident reports, along with rolling papers, cigarillos, containers for the substance, grinders, pipes and trays.

One couple allegedly had THC-infused gummies and vape pens, a felony possession charge in Texas.

Cannabis odor did lead to probable cause searches in some cases. Nearly all admitted to possessing marijuana — some after the fact when officers discovered it in their cars or on their persons. In cases with police stopping two people, both people were usually cited — even if one of them claimed ownership of the marijuana.

Online, Denton police released a list of the citations and arrests related to misdemeanor amounts of marijuana, covering the time period between Nov. 3 and May 2.

Decriminalize Denton received incident reports connected to some of those earlier this week, as part of a public information request the organization filed in February.

The reports cover a three-month time period from Nov. 9 to Feb. 17, as well as 55 of the 104 cases listed online between Nov. 3 and May 2. The organization’s representatives said they were shocked by what they read.

Police were still using cannabis odor in probable-cause searches and citing and releasing people for misdemeanor marijuana-related offenses despite the Denton’s voter-approved ordinance specifically directing them not to do so unless it’s related to a serious or violent offense.

But a majority of these cases involved people of color, when 70% of the people living in Denton identify as white, according to the Census Bureau. This racial disparity is one of the reasons why Decriminalize Denton kickstarted the petition to put the ordinance, which was labeled Proposition B, on the ballot last November — to help prevent it from happening in Denton.

Now Decriminalize Denton is demanding that City Manager Sara Hensley fire Denton Police Chief Doug Shoemaker for not implementing Proposition B. It’s a demand that Hensley is refusing to answer.

“Chief Shoemaker, in his interview process, committed to fully implement Prop B if it passed, only to immediately change course once hired and refuse to implement it,” Decriminalize Denton wrote in an early Monday morning news release.

“He publicly stated in his February presentation to [City Council] that since the passage of Prop B Denton police have never used the smell test as the impetus for search or seizure. The incident reports we received in our public information request reveal that claim to be a lie.”

Denton police said Shoemaker and other officials are continuing to review their marijuana policies in order to align with the views and wants of voters and what is allowed under state law, according to a late Monday afternoon news release from the Denton Police Department.

In the release, Denton police pointed out that Shoemaker has already amended a prior policy that stated that officers shall “use discretion” in whether to make an arrest for marijuana possession up to 4 ounces.

Under state law, 4 ounces or more of marijuana is a felony.

Shoemaker also claimed that cannabis odor detection is only one of the tools used by officers to establish probable cause, linking to the department’s marijuana policy in the release.

Of the 55 incidents regarding marijuana reported by Denton police, only two arrests have occurred since Nov. 22, when the City Council certified the election results. Shoemaker said those involved an alleged stalker and possession of a controlled substance.

According to the Denton Code of Ordinances:

“The only circumstances in which Denton Police Officers are permitted to issue citations or make arrests for class A or class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana are when such citations or arrests are part of (1) the investigation of a felony level narcotics case that has been designated as a high priority investigation by a Denton Police Commander, assistant chief of police, or chief of police; and/or (2) the investigation of a violent felony.”

Additionally, “a class C misdemeanor citation for possession of drug residue or drug paraphernalia shall not be issued in lieu of a possession of marijuana charge.”

But, according to incident reports, all of the citations related to drug paraphernalia found during a search. One report considered a “half-smoke blunt” as paraphernalia.

“I believe this displays that the intent behind the women and men of the Denton Police Department, as they are conducting these investigations, is not to crack down on petty marijuana use,” Shoemaker said in the department’s news release.

“At the end of the day, their goal, and mine, is to protect all members of our community.”

The “not to crack down on petty marijuana use” appears to show up when cross-referencing two sets of additional reports made available by Denton police.

From Nov. 22 to May 2, the reports show Denton police were involved in about 5,300 crime reports. Of those, 94 involved arrests and citations for misdemeanor amounts of marijuana.

About 35 of those were minors/juveniles, while 52 were people of color, and 42 were white, which breaks down as follows for male and female genders:

  • White: 28 male, 14 female
  • Black: 25 male, 6 female
  • Hispanic: 17 male, 2 female
  • Indigenous: 1 male
  • Asian: 1 male

According to the department’s marijuana report, 19 of those 94 people in cases between Nov. 22 and May 2 were cited and arrested not only for misdemeanor charges related to marijuana but also for other offenses. Those offenses included assault, driving while intoxicated, family violence, possession of a controlled substance, public intoxication (non-alcoholic), theft, violation of bond/protective order, unlawful carrying of a weapon and warrants.

In another arrest, detailed in an incident report obtained by Decriminalize Denton, a woman was charged with misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance after police reported finding hydrocodone pills in her purse, although they allegedly found four small bags of a “green leafy substance” and a grinder.

Of the 94 cases, the remaining 74 people were cited for possessing a misdemeanor amount of marijuana.

Neither Shoemaker nor the Denton Police Department responded to requests for comment about the racial disparity between the number of white people cited for marijuana offenses and the number of Black and Hispanic people.

In response to Decriminalize Denton’s news release, City Manager Hensley wrote, “I have full faith and confidence that Chief Shoemaker has and will continue to ensure the Denton Police Department conducts its drug-related enforcement activities in compliance with the authority granted to peace officers to enforce the State’s drug laws, as well as the oath of office the Chief and every sworn member of the Denton Police Department took to uphold the laws of the State of Texas.

“The City of Denton will continue to deprioritize enforcement of low amounts of marijuana in accordance with both state law and the voices of the population we serve.”

Decriminalize Denton, though, said it isn’t asking Denton police or the city manager to violate state law, board member Deb Armintor, a former Denton City Council member, said in a Monday interview with the Record-Chronicle.

Armintor said the ordinance simply involves the police using their discretionary powers, which the state allows, and simply not pursuing the misdemeanor charge as they do whenever they see someone going a few miles over the speed limit and decide not to pull them over for it.

“If these people were to read the ordinance, it is painstakingly written to conform to state law,” Armintor said. “Maybe they don’t think that it does, and they’re entitled to that opinion. But you can see that it is full of limitations.”

Denton’s ordinance, Armintor said, is modeled after one that has been in effect in Austin since May 2022. As KUVE-TV in Austin reported shortly after 85% of Austin voters approved the ordinance there, “it’s important to note that Saturday’s vote does not legalize marijuana use in the city of Austin.

“Instead, the measure ultimately forbids police officers from ticketing and arresting people on low-level marijuana offenses, like possession of small amounts of weed or related paraphernalia, unless tied to a more severe crime. Austin would also not pay to test substances suspected to be marijuana, which is an important step in substantiating drug charges.”

Armintor said that it is up to the state to make decisions about the legality of Denton’s ordinance, not the city manager or the mayor, or anyone else for that matter.

“Abbott and Paxton have sued Austin over everything they don’t like, but they have not sued them over the ordinance,” Armintor said. “They have been very quiet on this, and that is not a coincidence.

“They see which way the entire state falls and see the numbers and see the people in their own party who support it. They see that it is not a right versus left issue. It is a people’s issue. It’s a basic civil rights issue, a basic privacy rights issue and a matter of fiscal responsibility and waste of public time, money and resources to arrest people for this harmless misdemeanor offense.”

On Tuesday afternoon, during a meeting with the Record-Chronicle to discuss the upcoming bond election, Hensley suggested that stance may be changing.

District 57’s freshman state Rep. Richard Hayes, R-Denton, sponsored a bill that would prevent cities like Denton and Austin from enacting ordinances that violate state law, such as Hensley and others claim Proposition B does.

The bill passed the Texas House in April and the Senate on May 15. The House signed off on it on May 22. Dozens of Republican representatives sponsored it, including Denton County Reps. Lynn Stucky and Jared Patterson.

Critics of the bill claimed that if it’s signed by the governor, the law will impact not only ordinances like Denton’s Proposition B but also cities’ ability to enforce nondiscrimination ordinances, prevent predatory lending and regulate excessive noise, according to The Texas Tribune’s May 15 report.

The Tribune’s headline described it as the “Texas GOP’s broadest attempt yet to erode blue cities’ power.”

“If Abbott and Paxton believe that certain city ordinances violate that ambiguously worded unconstitutional (soon-to-be) new state law, then it will be up to Paxton or Abbott to litigate it as the state,” Armintor said. “Only the state can sue on behalf of the state. They’re the ones who would have to sue.

“Then of course that lawsuit would have to get litigated. Now we’re back to my original point about they have already been litigating a number of local ordinances in Austin. This is one that they have not touched or even spoken about. And it’s one that is popular, and I believe that’s why.”