You smell that?

8/16/2018, 6 a.m.
The African-American community has long lived with the trauma of police harassment and abuse. Civil rights leaders and lawyers have ...

The African-American community has long lived with the trauma of police harassment and abuse. Civil rights leaders and lawyers have pushed back for decades to end these deplorable, and many times, unconstitutional, practices.

Now we are disturbed by what seems to be a growing, harassing police tactic in Richmond — police stopping motorists based on the allegation they smell marijuana. These fake weed smells are then used as a pretext to search the person and his or her vehicle without a warrant.

The experiences of several innocent motorists who were stopped and searched by police under these false pretexts have been reported in the Richmond Free Press.

While courts have held that the smell of marijuana offers a “reasonable suspicion” for police to justify a search, we believe many officers are relying upon fabricated detections of marijuana odors to conduct searches in a bid to find drugs, weapons or other illegal contraband.

These false claims and searches by police amount to harassment — largely of young African-American men — and only serve to undermine the efforts of Police Chief Alfred Durham to build a better relationship between police officers and the community.

How can residents trust the police when they are pulled over and searched on the basis of lies?

An article published in 2016 in the University of California, Davis Law Review notes that such invasive policing can be traced to tactics developed during the 1980s and 1990s as the government ramped up the “war on drugs.”

According to the article by Alex Kreit, the Drug Enforcement Administration developed a training program, Operation Pipeline, to teach state and local police how to use such pretexts to stop motorists believed to be transporting illegal drugs.

Police, he wrote, have a profit motive for these pretextual stops. By using these fake marijuana smells to stop and search motorists, officers potentially can find a drug dealer and then boost local police coffers by seizing the person’s assets. The article talked about a small town in Texas that amassed $1.3 million in seized profits within six months of using pretextual stops of mostly out-of-town drivers.

One of the ways to largely reduce such stops, the article states, is to legalize marijuana.

In June, the Congressional Black Caucus called for decriminalizing the possession and use of marijuana and the automatic expungement of the criminal records of those convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession.

The war on drugs, the CBC chairman said, has been a failed war that ravaged black and brown communities in America. Black communities, the CBC stated, have been disproportionately policed and convicted for drug offenses, and marijuana reforms would reduce the numbers of black people in prison.

Richmond Police officials have offered no data detailing the context for the many police stops conducted each day. But we believe Chief Durham and the department should collect such information to get a real picture of what’s happening with police-citizen interactions. Then that information should be released to the public, without enhancing or varnishing the truth. It would go a long way to fostering the transparency and accountability the department espouses and the public demands.

We also support the ACLU’s efforts to rid Virginia police departments of these warrantless searches.

Police departments nationally and locally are battling criticism of officers’ harassment and abuse, particularly of African-Americans. While we all want safer neighborhoods, we don’t want police to manufacture justifications to stop people and search them and their vehicles. In the long run, such tactics only hurt our people and our community and tarnish our city.