Bethlehem ordinance decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana “is not being used . . . But officers do have reasons they aren’t using it.”

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Gadfly will dig in to the report by Chief DiLuzio at the Public Safety meeting March 3, but, for starters, Sara’s article gives you a nice overview.

Sara K. Satullo, “Bethlehem decriminalized weed, but city cops aren’t on board.” lehighvalleylive.com., March 6, 2020.

Bethlehem City Council took a progressive stand when it unanimously decriminalized possession of a small amount of marijuana back in 2018, in hopes of preventing a minor arrest from derailing a person’s future job and school prospects.

Yet, a year-and-a-half later data show that Bethlehem police officers are hesitant to ignore state law in favor of issuing small time violators — those with 30 grams or less of pot — a city fine.

In fact, city police only used the new city law for 19 of the 289 total minor marijuana arrests made over that same time period. In the heart of South Bethlehem, Lehigh University police reported five low-level weed arrests in 2019, only charging one person under state law.

City police Chief Mark DiLuzio shared these stats with council’s public safety committee Tuesday evening, explaining officers have been hesitant to rely on the city law amid fears they’d be accused of dispensing justice unfairly. “You are correct it is not being used,” DiLuzio said. “But officers do have reasons they aren’t using it.”

Members of city council and District Judge Nancy Matos Gonzales, who penned a December letter to DiLuzio, worry there’s currently an inequitable system in place due to uneven enforcement. Forty-seven percent of the minor marijuana arrests since the ordinance was enacted occurred in the Southside, which covers Matos Gonzalez’s district.

At the close of the meeting, the chief surprised council by floating a possible solution: city officers can fine someone under the city law or charge them under both the city and state law and leave it up to a district judge. The idea was met with support from council and DiLuzio promised to issue a directive to his department.

The city ordinance only applies to the Northampton County section of the city because Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin — the top law enforcement official in the county — says state law supersedes the city law. Pennsylvania treats marijuana possession as a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in prison and a $500 fine.

“Many of the officers, and I’ll be real blunt with you, they have an issue with it,” DiLuzio said of the option to use the city law. “Their issue is: we have the same violation on this side of town and the same violation here and we have two different ways to enforce it. It should be universal and it should come from the state.”

The chief surveyed his 154 officers department and the 117 cops who responded were split on decriminalization with 44% favoring it. But 97% agreed it should come from state lawmakers.

The majority of the marijuana arrests stem from officers encountering people while investigating another crime, the chief said. The stats don’t reflect the officers who choose to toss a small amount of pot they find. “We are not out there hunting down people and jumping out of bushes to arrest people for weed,” DiLuzio said.

Council members were upset to learn police were not choosing the city fine the majority of the time and pressed DiLuzio to explain why and outline any steps he’s taken to encourage its use.

Officers get to decide whether to charge someone under the city or state law, DiLuzio said. So many factors go into this: Was the person cooperative? Are they under the influence? Were they driving? Is it only a little bit of pot?

Of the 19 people who were charged under the city law: five were white, four black and 10 Hispanic, the chief said. “It was used more on minorities,” he said.

Council members shared Judge Matos Gonzalez’s concerns that Lehigh students arrested by campus police are facing small fines for marijuana violations, while most people arrested steps off campus by city police face state misdemeanor charges, carrying stiffer penalties, court costs and required court appearances.

Decriminalization must come from Harrisburg, the chief said.

Councilman Michael Colon, who chairs the public safety committee, said council wasn’t willing to wait for change in Harrisburg, where mechanisms move slowly. Eleven states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana, so large chunks of the U.S. population are free to walk into a dispensary and buy whatever they want. In most of Pennsylvania, a small amount of pot gets you a criminal record, Colon said.

Council wants to be at the front of this sea change, which is why it joined at other cities in decriminalization, Colon said. He predicted this will be looked at like Prohibition in the near future.

What’s not coming to committee tomorrow: the marijuana arrest matter

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10 days or so ago we posted a November 20, 2019, letter from Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio, co-signed by Deputy Chief Scott Meixell, to the Northampton County Court administrator with concern about a November 14 conversation between District Justice Nicholas Englesson and two police officers regarding a traffic stop of an Hispanic male and subsequent marijuana charge, a conversation in which the arresting officer felt he was accused of being racist. In epistolary response that we also published, the Judge said that his purpose in initiating the conversation was to counsel the officer about possibly racially insensitive behavior.

Gadfly has framed the situation this way: what’s at stake here is the possibility that we have either a racially insensitive police officer backed by his Chief or a district judge abusing his power, overstepping his bounds.

The City has denied there was any wrongdoing on the part of the officer and is withholding further comment.

In fact, there has been little public comment at all from the City. The newspapers have not picked up on this. It may be that the Mayor’s prepared statement at the February 18 City Council meeting is the only public comment. Again, not picked up by the papers as far as Gadfly knows.

Gadfly thinks this a serious matter and did publish private letters.

Gadfly has devoted a half-dozen or so posts laying out the controversy, ending with one in which he says he still has twenty questions, mostly about how the City has handled the matter. (See “Police” under Topics on the sidebar for the letters, the Mayor’s statements,  and all the posts.)

Gadfly wishes there was more openness. That’s what gadflies always wish. Sigh.

Because charges of ugly racial insensitivity are around us right now.

Laurie Mason Schroeder, “Man who was punched and kicked by Allentown police in viral video not guilty; judge rips conduct of officers.” Morning Call, February 21, 2020.

Peter Hall, “Jim Thorpe police accused of racial profiling Latino drivers.” Morning Call, February 21, 2020.

Not the kind of activity we want to be known for.

And Gadfly is not saying we are.

But let’s be sure.

Was City Council briefed on this? Was that what the executive session with the Mayor was about February 18? If so, would it be permissible for Council to at least make a statement saying they had been briefed, that they are monitoring the situation, and that they agreed that lip-buttoning was best?

Still twenty questions on the marijuana arrest matter

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Awww, some people think the Mayor’s statement at Council ends the marijuana arrest matter to which we have devoted a half-dozen or so posts. (See “Police” under Topics on the sidebar.)

But gadflies have a “Show me” gene.

Gadflies take a pledge to “question authority” — especially when Authority goes clam-like.

Gadfly has said several times that he wishes the Mayor would give press briefings and press conferences (I know, I know, the President doesn’t either), in which The Press could ask probing questions — legitimate questions, but probing — that get at what is often unanswered when just statements are delivered. Mayoral “reports” at Council sometimes need follow-up.

(By the way, did you see the brave article by Mike Morelli — “The Morning Call boasts talented newsroom, despite buyouts,” Morning Call, February 14, 2020 — but I think we have to face the fact that dedicated, in-depth, long-term reporting on Bethlehem City Hall is going if not gone. All you may have left are gadflies.)

The future mayor, who may well be (should be) a reader of this blog, might think about this. Hint, hint.

So, let a gadfly be a gadfly (sounds like “it’s just Trump being Trump,” doesn’t it?).

First, Gadfly is aware “politics” swirls around this dispute between our Police Chief and the District Judge. But he prefers to tune that out and stay with the basic “facts” of the core case — the traffic stop.

Our focus should be:

Was an Hispanic man — presumably a Southside resident — treated in a racially insensitive way when stopped by a Bethlehem policeman for a minor traffic violation?

Gadfly still has questions.

  • “The matter is the subject of an ongoing non-criminal investigation,” the Mayor wrote February 11. Who is under investigation? Can it be anybody but the police officer?
  • The matter “has been thoroughly reviewed internally,” the Mayor wrote February 11, yet “The matter is the subject of an ongoing non-criminal investigation.” Does this mean that the thorough internal review didn’t end the matter but showed there was need for further investigation?
  • Who did/led the internal review if allegations have been made about the Chief’s conduct and the Deputy Chief is on record backing the Chief’s position? God forbid that the Chief had a leading role in the review or the investigation.
  • And was that “ongoing non-criminal investigation” internal as well? Who’s doing/leading that?
  • What written guidelines, policies, procedures does the Police department have when the matter under consideration is “one of its own”? Were those “rules” followed?
  • Was there an interview with the subject of the traffic stop as part of the investigation? Did his character match the picture of him given by the Judge?
  • Race is such a sensitive issue — is there a role, a safeguarding role, an independent role for outside “eyes” on the issue to guarantee objectivity?
  • Per February 11, “The City Administration will have no further comment because the information and evidence are subject to confidentiality under Pennsylvania law.” Specifically, what law is that? Why is the matter confidential? Is that because it is a personnel matter? Which means that the officer is the subject of the “ongoing non-criminal investigation.” Gadfly can understand that personnel matters are private. But Gadfly is not sure whether the fact that there is a personnel matter is in itself confidential.
  • “The Administration,” per February 11, “does not consider the matter appropriate to be reviewed by the Public Safety Committee.” This one really puzzles the Gadfly. Whose committee is it, as the Gadfly so bravely challenged at the February 18 Council meeting, Council’s or the Mayor’s? Gadfly can see the Council agreeing with the Mayor for good reason that they will not take up the issue. But the language here suggests that the Administration drives the Council agenda. And, so, in fact, Council is not taking up the issue at the March 3 Public Safety meeting. Why? Puzzling.
  • Did something change between February 11 and the Mayor’s public statement at Council February 18? For now we have the Mayor’s statement that “The allegations have been subject to a thorough internal investigation,” and “The evidence showed that the allegations are false.”
  • We gather from this that the “ongoing [internal] non-criminal investigation” that followed the thorough review is over. Once again we need to ask who did/led that investigation and whether external scrutiny is appropriate.
  • And, so, is the matter settled as far as the City is concerned? Case closed? Not clear per February 18. If so, if case closed, why not talk about it? Why not tell details? If not closed, what left is going on?
  • “The evidence showed that the allegations are false.” The only evidence referred to February 18 is audio/video evidence at the scene of the traffic stop (presumably). How does that bear on the allegation that the officer refused to accept constructive criticism in a conversation at the Judge’s office? Does it mean that the evidence shows there was nothing wrong with the officer’s behavior?
  • Let’s think about the audio/visual evidence. Per February 18, it seems determinative in the City’s view. If so, it’s fair to ask, as the Judge did, why the Chief didn’t mention such “exculpatory” evidence in his allegation letter to County judicial headquarters.
  • Which brings up the question of why the Chief didn’t contact the Judge after hearing from his officers, present this determinative evidence, and nip this brouhaha in the bud. The Judge wasn’t “there.” The Judge was reporting the subject’s version of events. The tapes would have put him “there.” On the spot. Is it too much a stretch to believe that if the Judge were invited to view the evidence, the Judge might have apologized? Feels like it might have saved a lot of time, energy, and anguish on the part of many people (Gadfly included — he’s an old man, he has only so many posts left in his quiver). Further, why at this point not offer to show the Judge the audio/visual evidence and expect that he will apologize?
  • And speaking of the Chief not contacting the Judge right away but sending a letter to the County judicial Home Office, in doing that didn’t the Chief act without knowledge of both sides that was easily accessible to him? Didn’t the Chief declare concern (guilt?) without the complete facts? What would cause the Chief to suspend a first principle of police work? Again, if he knew the audio/visual evidence at that point and it was so compelling, why not make it determinative in his letter?
  • Let’s think about the audio/visual evidence again. “We” don’t get to see it. We must trust that it proves allegations false. Gadfly hopes it does. But the core of this issue for Gadfly is racial insensitivity not legality. The core of this issue for Gadfly — based on the story of the subject of the traffic stop channeled through the Judge, granted not like direct testimony — is about the officer’s approach, attitude, bearing, demeanor, language, physical action, and so forth. For Gadfly, those kinds of things are the core of the “charge,” if you will, here, which is racial insensitivity. Gadfly can imagine and hope that the audio/visual shows that the officer acted “by the book.” And yet it could still show that the officer was racially insensitive in applying the book. Because of what is at stake here in terms of racial harmony in a City with 30% Hispanics or simply because of a desire for fair play, Gadfly would need to see the evidence before he closed the case.
  • But let’s not forget legality. What was the legal reason for searching the car? What do the tapes show of when, relative to the appearance of the warrant, the search was done? The time line of events, as Gadfly outlined in an earlier post, needs to be defined.
  • And Gadfly would be very curious about how the officer handled the discrepancy between the warrant and the subject vis-a-vis the tattoo. Did the subject know he was being taken in with the possibility of being a person he couldn’t be?
  • And that leads Gadfly to ask whether the tapes show the subject of the traffic stop in a way that matches the Judge’s description of him — which is the only description we have, and a description that convinced the Judge to believe him and make a conscious decision to have a conversation with the officer? Did the Judge get it right? That would be important to know.

Twenty bullets. Twenty questions.

Gadfly’s pencil has run out of lead. He could go on and on. Being a pest. Not accepting the Mayor’s statement.

Of course, the Mayor may be right: the Judge was out of bounds in what he did.

But he thinks he’s asking the kinds of questions a good investigative journalist would.

More important — he thinks he’s asking the kinds of questions any of his followers would.

The kinds of questions you are asking.

Gadfly tries to be your center of consciousness.

This issue is far from closed in Gadfly’s mind.

As usual he has tried to lay it out for you in small bites.

What are you thinking?

Let’s remember what’s at issue, what’s at stake here: the possibility is that we have a racially insensitive police officer backed by his Chief or a district judge abusing his power, overstepping his bounds.

Let’s get it right.

Serious stuff.

no doubt to be continued . . .

The Mayor’s statement on the marijuana arrest

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“Mayor Donchez: Judge Dumbass Allegations are false,” Lehigh Valley Ramblings, February 19, 2020.

Last night at the City Council meeting, the Mayor addressed the dispute between Judge Englesson and Chief DiLusio over the possibility of racially insensitive behavior by an officer during a traffic stop and marijuana arrest that we have looked at in half a dozen or so posts over the past week. The key new point of information the Mayor revealed last night was that there is audio-visual evidence — the Judge had noted the lack of mention of that fact in the Chief’s November 20 letter to Northampton County Court.

I consider it necessary and in the City’s best interest that this statement be made to address recent blog postings of letters of a highly personal and confidential nature. In the letters magistrate District Judge Englesson made allegations of unprofessional and illegal conduct against a City police officer and Chief DiLusio involving a traffic stop and a marijuana possession charge. The allegations have been subject to a thorough internal investigation. This included review of dash camera and body camera, audio-visual evidence of the actual event. The evidence showed that the allegations are false. The Solicitor, the City Solicitor, advises that Pennsylvania laws impose specific constraints which limit further public disclosure by the City at this time. Those constraints also apply to investigatory materials, evidence, and any further review.  Therefore, for the foreseeable future, further comment on this matter will be very limited or declined.

 

Gadfly rests: waiting official response to questions surrounding the marijuana arrest

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This post was written yesterday — Sunday, February 16 — and placed in the queue to be automatically published today at 10:00am.  Thus, it was written before Gadfly received the Lehigh Valley Ramblings post on this subject less than an hour ago and remains unchanged.

“The City Administration is well aware of the matter. It has been thoroughly reviewed internally. The matter is the subject of an ongoing non-criminal investigation. We caution you not to speculate as to the nature of the ongoing investigation. We caution you that it would be inappropriate to assume the truth of the allegations. We caution  you that it would be inappropriate to assume there is good cause for the allegations. The City Administration will have no further comment because the information and evidence are subject to confidentiality under Pennsylvania law. The Administration does not consider the matter appropriate to be reviewed  by the Public Safety Committee.”
Email to Gadfly from Mayor Donchez, February 11.

Gadflies are always outsiders. They can only try to make sense of what they can see. They are always cognizant of and respectful of their limited perspective. They are always open to other views, always ready to be slapped upside the head for wrong-headed thinking.

The Mayor says this serious matter has been “thoroughly reviewed internally” and is the subject of “an ongoing non-criminal investigation.”

Good.

We would guess that review asked the same questions, covered the same territory that Gadfly has here in the past several posts.

Gadfly wonders, however, if, given the nature of the issues and the people involved, whether an “internal” investigation is the only or best avenue for an objective look at what happened.

The dueling complaints again: considering the sources

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DiLuzio and Meixell to Greene 11 20 19
Englesson to Greene 11 29 19
Englesson to Donchez 12 20 19

We have been asking what we know and what we do not know as we attempt to evaluate this situation of dueling complaints about a serious matter of possible racial profiling by a police officer or what we might call abuse of power by a district judge.

Chief Dilusio’s complaint alleges that Judge Englesson accused one of his officers of being a racist. The Judge, in turn, cited the resistance of the arresting officer to the “constructive criticism” of his behavior during a traffic stop and the “spurious complaint” the Chief filed against him with the Northampton County Court.

We have talked about the search and the warrant. Let’s talk now about the complainants themselves.

The Chief:

  • The conversation between the Judge and the two officers was November 14, a Thursday. The statements by the two officers are dated November 15 — Friday. The Chief’s “complaint” letter to Northampton County is dated November 20 — the following Wednesday. The Chief had 3-4 working days to investigate the matter and to plan a course of action.
  • No evidence beyond the statements of the two police officers is presented in the November 20 letter.
  • The Chief’s defense of his officer and the record of his department is natural and honorable.
  • But one hopes that on some level the Chief at least minimally entertained the possibility that he may have one racially insensitive officer or an officer who was racially insensitive one time.
  • For instance, was there anything in the arresting officer’s past record that relates to racially insensitive behavior?
  • One wonders why, in the interest of fair and amicable conflict resolution, the Chief  lodged a complaint against the Judge with his superior rather than contacting the Judge first.
  • I guess you’d expect Gadfly, whose motto is “Good conversation builds community,” to feel that way!
  • Though the Chief had 3-4 working days to consider his response, that act of lodging a complaint without at least talking with the Judge seems intemperate. The Chief heard only one side of the November 14 conversation as far as we know.
  • Gadfly says “as far as we know” because he is confused by the Mayor’s email to him that he “should exercise caution in posting and thereby endorsing the truth of the allegations directed against the City by Judge Englesson, which prompted Chief Diluzio’s complaint to President Judge Koury [the head Northampton County judge].”
  • What allegation against the City did the Judge make that prompted the Chief’s November 20 letter?
  • There was a conversation, a private conversation, between the Judge and two City officers. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the Judge in front of a witness did undeniably allege the arresting officer was a racist. Would that be an allegation against the man or the city?
  • Gadfly sees no systemic charge against the police department or the City in the Judge’s private conversation that would explain the Chief making the first shot in this interchange and thereby, in effect, inevitably making the dispute ultimately public.
  • In fact, the momentum seems precisely the other way ’round — the Judge forced to respond to the Chief.
  • The Chief’s complaint against the Judge seems intemperate to me.

The Judge:

  • The Judge’s counter-complaint is rather exhaustive.
  • He explains that he made a conscious and calculated decision to have a private conversation with the officer to offer him constructive criticism about his job,
  • and to protect his constituents from maltreatment,
  • and to protect the City from Civil Rights lawsuits.
  • He explains his respect for police in general and for Bethlehem police in particular.
  • He explains his extensive background and law-enforcement-related experience.
  • He explains what he could have done if he wanted to accuse someone of racial profiling, and it wouldn’t be in private.
  • He explains how he understands that the officer might have felt intimidated by such an “uncomfortable conversation” with a judge.
  • The Judge’s vigorous response to the Chief’s complaint seems understandable and appropriate to me.

How are you seeing it? Gadfly has no desire to tell his followers how to think. The primary sources on which to base thinking are available to everybody. All courteously presented perspectives welcome.

to be continued . . .