Two men were walking to Mickey’s Liquor in north Minneapolis to buy a pack of cigarettes one evening last week when they saw a police car speed past them down Fremont Avenue.
“Oh, he’s after somebody!” joked one of the men, Jermaine Taris, as his friend Cory James reached into his pocket for some change. “Somebody’s going to jail tonight.”
He just didn’t think it was them.
The squad car quickly turned around and pulled up to Taris and James. The officer pointed a gun at them and ordered them to get on the ground.
Taris later told me that he put his hands up and asked what was happening, but the officer ordered him down again. They put him and James in separate cars in the liquor store parking lot on Plymouth Avenue. Taris saw something on the officer’s computer about a black male in a t-shirt armed with a gun.
By this time, a half dozen people had congregated outside of Mickey’s to watch as Taris and James were put in separate police cars. A third police car arrived. They waited.
I stumbled on the scene while driving down Plymouth Avenue, pulling into the parking lot after seeing the commotion outside. I asked the onlookers what was happening.
“They’re looking for a gun,” somebody said.
In a four-part series this March, the Star Tribune documented the scourge of youth gun violence and revealed that Minneapolis and St. Paul police have seized 8,000 guns off the streets in the last five years. Many of those guns came from north Minneapolis, which has seen children as young as three, five, and 13 shot to death in recent years. Parents and community leaders are pressing for the shootings to stop, and authorities have made it a priority to get illegally-held firearms off the streets
I lingered outside Mickey’s to see what would happen because it’s so rare to get a glimpse of how police tackle the problem – the department months ago rejected a request by my partner on the gun series, reporter Matt McKinney, to allow the Star Tribune to ride along with police officers as they made gun arrests.
This time, police came up empty. They didn’t find a gun on Taris and James. They didn’t even find warrants.
Instead, they let the two men go with an apology.
The officers drove away before I could talk with them, but Taris and James hung around, frustrated and embarrassed.
“They thought we had a gun – we were walking down the street minding our own business,” said Taris.
“Just because you’re walking?” asked a guy outside the liquor store. “Are you serious?”
“He had change and was putting change in his pocket,” said Taris, referring to James, “and the cop pulled us over talking about how he had a gun.”
“Racial profiling,” fumed the guy. “Racial profiling.”
Both men are black. Taris, 32, said he is studying graphic design at Minneapolis Community and Technical College while working as a retail associate at Kohl’s. James, 24, said he is a landscaper.
Sgt. Stephen McCarty later said while he couldn’t speak specifically about the case, “we try to balance public safety with not infringing on innocent people’s rights. But if we get a call with a description we’re compelled to check it out. And I think most people in the community understand that. We trust our officers to act in good faith in any situation.”
Taris acknowledged that the area suffers from gun crime, noting that he’s been robbed at gunpoint on Plymouth Avenue multiple times.
But he doesn’t know what to think anymore.
“I’ve never just seen people get stopped here without reason,” Taris said. “I’m more or less disappointed in the system.”