The Tuscaloosa Police Department will begin issuing citations instead of making arrests for misdemeanor drug offenses after a city council vote Tuesday night.

The resolution passed was innocuous, adding just six words to the Code of Tuscaloosa, allowing the city to punish misdemeanor offenses "as prescribed by Alabama Code 11-45-9."

This simple addition, though, will mean big changes in community policing.

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In March of this year, the city council's public safety committee heard a presentation from Tuscaloosa Police Chief Brent Blankley, who asked the full council to consider allowing his officers to issue citations for second-degree possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and for minor in possession of alcohol charges. The state code above now allows cities to exercise that discretion.

The council voted unanimously to adopt that recommendation Tuesday night.

This should not be interpreted to mean that any of the above is now legal in Tuscaloosa -- all those misdemeanors are still criminal acts and could ultimately result in serious consequences if a suspect is convicted after a citation is issued.

This simply means that instead of arresting suspects accused of the above crimes, officers can write a citation and allow them to leave the scene without ever being jailed.

And ultimately, TPD spokeswoman Stephanie Taylor said, that decision falls to the officer on scene -- arrests can still be made for the listed offenses if the officer deems it necessary.

"We're very happy the council agreed to this," TPD spokeswoman Stephanie Taylor said. "It takes officers at least two hours to arrest someone, take them to jail and finish the related paperwork. There's really no reason to take someone to jail - forcing them to pay a bond to get out or just stay there if they can't afford it - for a little bit of weed. If someone is cooperative, we can just write the ticket and everyone can go on their way."

Taylor said any illegal drugs will still be seized when discovered by police officers in the city.

"Of course, we'll have to take it as evidence because it's still illegal. And the person will still have to show up in court and pay the associated fines," she said. "It's not quite right to say this 'decriminalizes' marijuana possession because the penalties haven't changed. A better description would be 'de-prioritizing' it. We're hoping this will cut down on the number of people who attempt to elude traffic stops. If someone knows they're just going to get a ticket instead of a trip to jail, they may less likely to flee."

The police department is also urging local and state leaders to consider increasing the severity of charges filed against people who do flee from traffic stops, creating major risks for themselves, police officers and unaffiliated drivers on the road.

For more coverage of crime and courts in West Alabama, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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