A recent report says Black people in Montana are nearly 10 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white people. That’s higher than any other state.
Montana’s top rank comes from an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report released in April that evaluated six million arrests across the U.S. between 2010 and 2018.
While Black and white people use pot at similar rates, the report says Black people have a higher chance of being arrested for possession than white people in every state, including those that legalized or decriminalized marijuana. In Colorado, people can still be arrested for having above a certain amount of cannabis or using it while underage.
SK Rossi is the director of advocacy and policy at the ACLU of Montana.
“It’s really important to note that in 31 states, racial disparities were larger in 2018 than they were in 2010, and Montana actually stuck out as having the highest disparity rate across the country between arrests for Black people and white people,” Rossi said.
While the rate of arrests in Montana for marijuana possession stayed about the same for white people, it increased for Black people over the same eight year stretch.
The report said Gallatin County had the largest disparity in the state. Black people, who make up around 0.5 percent of the county’s population, were 18 times more likely to be arrested for having weed than white people.
“That’s just an enormous number and is actually higher than places that have made national news for their racially biased policing issues, like Missouri,” Rossi said.
Gallatin County’s sheriff, Brian Gootkin, said he could only speak about his agency.
“I mean, it almost infers that we’re like profiling, or we’re looking for African Americans to pull over, which is absolutely not the case. That’s not what we do at the sheriff’s office,” Gootkin said.
Gootkin said the sheriff’s office goes through an extensive hiring process for deputies with rigorous background investigations and psychological tests. Once hired, deputies have more training, including how to behave with the public.
“We make sure that, number one, we hire the right people and that they’re doing the right thing out there,” Gootkin said.
Gootkin said he’s not a statistician and would be open to sitting down with someone from the ACLU and Montana State University to go through the numbers. He said his office is also open to more training and is in the process of getting an online program for deputies to learn about implicit bias.
The report said the arrest rate for Black people with marijuana was 14 times higher than white people in Yellowstone County. Missoula County trailed close behind.
Sgt. Travis Welsh with the Missoula Police Department told YPR in an email that he would not “comment on another entity's numbers or conclusions” and that he didn’t know “where or how the ACLU got the numbers.”
The ACLU says most of the data came from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Law enforcement agencies in most states, including Montana, report to the FBI Program.
Welsh and Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder also told YPR the majority of cases involving marijuana possession in recent years were white people.
Linder said he looked at all the cases in Yellowstone County that resulted in arrests or citations between July 1, 2019 and July 23, 2020. Not including felonies that may have had a lesser included charge of possession of marijuana, Linder said 21 of the people were white, one was Native American, two were Latino and one was Black.
Linder told YPR, “These numbers should speak for themselves.”
The ACLU report doesn’t use a one to one comparison between black and white people in each county. Rather, it pulls in U.S. Census Bureau data to compare the rate of arrests for each racial group per 100,000 people.
Again, here’s SK Rossi with the ACLU.
“One of the problems with actually understanding why these disparities exist is that Montana has an enormous dearth of criminal justice data available for analysis,” Rossi said.
Rossi points to Missouri, which requires every law enforcement agency to gather demographic data for each stop, search and arrest.
A 2019 report from Missouri’s Attorney General showed the stop and search rate for Black drivers was higher than it was for white drivers, even though white drivers were found with contraband more often.
“And that is the data that we need to have because that points to, absolutely, racial bias in policing, when the data doesn’t even support the reason for those disparities, that’s exceptionally disturbing. But we don’t have that data here in Montana, and we need it,” Rossi said.
Rossi said requiring that kind of detailed data gathering could come from Montana’s state legislature. They said a statewide requirement that law enforcement officers wear body cameras would also improve transparency.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said he tried to get body cameras for his deputies and detention officers several years ago.
“And surprisingly the people that were against it were the county commission, for two big reasons. Number one, the cost because you have to have server space for all, you know, you can’t just get rid of that stuff and dump it. You have to save it for a period of time. And then the second thing was for people’s privacy,” Gootkin said.
Gootkin said the sheriff’s office recently applied for a grant to help cover the cost of body cameras and server space for the video footage. He said county commissioners may be more supportive now compared to three years ago.
Following the report from April, the ACLU of Montana is working with the national office to collect similar data on racial arrest disparities for Indigenous people in the U.S. a spokesperson said that information may be available this fall.