In May, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) released official crime statistics for 2016. While most attention on crime rates is rightly devoted to serious crimes, OSBI noted an eye-catching development in a supplemental report: arrests for drug crimes increased by over 20 percent from 2015. Part of this may be the result of changes in reporting methods, as agencies switch from reporting totals to incident-based reporting. However, when viewed in light of other trends in the report, it suggests that some law enforcement agencies were devoting more resources to low-level drug crimes — possibly at the expense of investigating more serious crimes — in the run up to the November 2016 election. The surge happened as Oklahomans prepared to vote on whether to reclassify simple drug possession as a misdemeanor, which they ultimately did in November 2016. This apparent shift to focus on minor drug crimes reflects a bad case of misaligned priorities.

Local agencies made more drug arrests in 2016, but fewer arrests for other crimes

OSBI includes statistics both for crimes that are reported to law enforcement and for arrests made by agencies. Reports of most “index crimes” — serious offenses like murder, aggravated assault, and burglary — increased in number from 2015, while the number of murders ticked down. Overall, the number of index crimes (not the crime rate, which takes into account population changes) rose by 5.1 percent following three consecutive years of decreases. 

Despite the rise in reported index crimes, the number of arrests for those offenses by county and city agencies fell by over 10 percent (our analysis does not include state agencies or juvenile arrests, which causes slight variations from the numbers cited here). Similarly, arrests for alcohol-related crimes fell by over 10 percent, continuing a long decline. But the number of drug arrests by local agencies increased by about 16 percent, by far the largest single-year increase in recent years. This is enough to at least raise an eyebrow — with more serious crimes being reported, why are there fewer arrests for those crimes but more for drug crimes?

The increase in drug arrests was driven by marijuana and uncategorized drugs

OSBI also provides numbers of drug arrests broken down by possession or sales/manufacturing, as well as the category of the substance: marijuana; opium, cocaine and their derivatives; synthetic narcotics; and other. Possession accounted for about 9 in 10 drug arrests in 2016. While all categories of drugs saw increases in arrests, the increases were far higher for marijuana and other drugs; together, these categories accounted for 80 percent of the increase in the number of arrests.

Since the arresting officer decides which category the drug falls under, and it’s not always clear what the substance is at the time of an arrest, the “other” category likely includes most arrests for illegal possession of prescription pills. Because of this, it’s likely that the sharp increase in arrests can be at least partly explained by law enforcement focusing on opioids, a growing concern in Oklahoma. Our state has struggled with prescription abuse for years, and Attorney General Mike Hunter has led an effort to bring together substance abuse services, law enforcement, and others to combat the problem.

The increase in marijuana arrests is more puzzling. Numbers had been following a clear downward trend, seeing an increase in only one of the previous seven years. The increase of 20 percent in marijuana arrests from 2015 to 2016 is a drastic deviation from that trend, alone accounting for 43 percent of the overall increase in drug arrests. As Oklahoma prepares to vote on legalizing marijuana for medical purposes in 2018, the trend seems to be far out of step with the current moment.

Did law enforcement agencies shift their priorities?

It’s no secret that many law enforcement leaders were among the loudest opponents of SQ 780, the ballot question passed by voters in 2016 that reclassified simple drug possession and minor property crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies. In the run-up to the election, for example, Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton darkly predicted that people with addictions would create havoc: “They can steal more, and use drugs freely and openly. If you’re caught with heroin on a school playground, you’re guilty of a misdemeanor. … I think it sends a message that these things aren’t as bad.” Oklahoma voters didn’t see it that way, passing the question and its companion measure, SQ 781, by healthy margins.

It’s possible that some law enforcement agencies, believing SQ 780 would send a message that drugs “aren’t as bad,” would use their discretion to reinforce their own message that drugs are indeed dangerous by arresting more people. The trends in drug arrests across counties differed widely: agencies in 25 counties — about one in three — made fewer drug arrests in 2016 than in 2015. But the counties with the largest populations saw marked increases: 11.6 percent in Oklahoma County, 13.6 percent in Tulsa County, and 24.8 percent in Cleveland County. The increase of 639 drug arrests in Oklahoma County — home of outspoken SQ 780 opponent District Attorney David Prater — alone accounts for almost a quarter of the total state increase.

Misplaced priorities are harmful to all Oklahomans

Local law enforcement leaders must make critical decisions about where to focus their limited resources. The best research shows that the most effective ways to prevent crime are to address issues like substance abuse through treatment rather than punishment, and to make people who would break the law feel that they’re likely to be caught. Last year’s crime statistics show that, on average, our law enforcement agencies moved in the opposite direction in 2016: focusing less on investigating and making arrests for serious crimes, and spending more time arresting people for drug crimes. This is the wrong approach if we hope to make Oklahoma communities safer and stronger.