Marijuana Related Stops by the Des Moines, Iowa Police

2016 – 2020 ANALYSIS

Marijuana enforcement in Des Moines is increased each year during the months of April through September by a police unit known as the Special Enforcement Team (SET).  The SET is made up of between 7 to 10 police officers who are specially assigned to the unit by the Chief of Police.  The SET has a flexible assignment to deploy in the areas of the city where the department believes a greater police presence is required.  The SET primarily patrols in the 50311, 50314, 50316 zip codes.

Des Moines Police Describes SET

Here’s how Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert described SET, when he was in charge of the patrol bureau as a Police Major in May of 2014.

Question: How do you decide how best to deploy the Special Enforcement Team?

Answer from Wingert: “Your average patrol officer is busy for the majority of their shift, responding to calls for service. The Special Enforcement Team is primarily not trip-responsive, so we can establish their mission and deploy them and they can focus the majority of their attention to that task without the normal interruption that a beat officer would have.

We have 10 officers assigned to (the team) and a supervisor, and they are split into two groups, which allows us seven-day-a-week coverage. They work collectively with our detective bureau. They analyze the crime data and see who detectives are looking at, who the players out there are who need a little more attention: What kind of issues are there? Where are the issues?

Then they deploy to address those. For a savvy street cop, it’s a very good job, a very productive job. Their mission is to figure out what our serious crime trends are and resolve them.”

Data Analysis of SET from 2016 through 2020

We have data on the SET, collected through Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests, for 2016 through 2020.

Marijuana Special Enforcement Team Data
Total # of Stops Total Grams Collected Median* # Days Where Marijuana Collected >100 grams
2016 1,889 2786.5 3 4
2017 1,470 1424 5 2
2018 1,742 3628 19 5
2019 1,238 1911.5 4 4
2020 252 2691 5.5 7

*Median shows that on days where marijuana was found, more than one-half of the amount found was less than the number shown in the column.  For example, in 2016, on days where marijuana was found, more than half of the marijuana found was 3 grams or less. 

To see detailed charts of SET activity each year, click on the links below:

Our analysis finds, in the five years that we have examined, the following facts:

  • The Des Moines Police Department, Special Enforcement Team, made 6,591 stops;
  • Those stops resulted in the collection of marijuana 308 times;
  • 21 of the stops resulted in marijuana being collected in an amount greater than 100 grams;
  • All of the other stops were for amounts less than 100 grams. 100 grams is one estimate of the dividing point between personal use and dealer amounts.

These are the statistics, expressed as percentages:

  • 4.7% of all stops (6,591) resulted in finding marijuana;
  • .03% of all stops (less than 1%) resulted in finding more than 100 grams of marijuana.
  • Blacks are 11% of the population of Des Moines, yet are 30% of those arrested for marijuana possession.

The ACLU, released a report in April 2020, that found:

  • Blacks in Iowa are 7.26 times more likely to be arrested for possession of Marijuana than Whites. This makes Iowa the 5th worst state in the United States for disproportionate arrests.

Our analysis is also consistent with the findings of a study of over 20 million traffic stops in North Carolina. That study, and the analysis of it, are contained in a book, Suspect Citizens.  The conclusions from that book included the following for North Carolina:

  • Arrest worthy contraband is rare in traffic stops;
  • Finding contraband occurs in only 10% of searches;
  • The contraband found is almost always singular (i.e. personal use);
  • The tactics do not appear to have any readily apparent crime fighting benefits;
  • The negative consequences on community trust are significant; and
  • Traffic stops are a remarkable blunt and inefficient tool for crime fighting.

Each of these statements can apply to the Des Moines Police Department. We are continuing to analyze the data and attempt to identify the actual charges that were filed against the people found with marijuana. From there, Just Voices Iowa will review the records of Iowa Courts online to determine the outcome of those cases.

Des Moines Marijuana Enforcement Task Force Recommendations

In June 2020, the Des Moines City Council approved a resolution to form a task force to study making marijuana a low-level police enforcement priority.  The Marijuana Enforcement Task Force completed their work in October 2020. You can read the report and their recommendations in  DM Marijuana Enforcement Task Force Report.