On the night of May 26, 2012, Gaylord police officer Eric Boon pulled over a young white woman because she didn't have her headlights on. He then asked her for proof of insurance, which had expired a month earlier. Boon told the woman that an updated card was probably in the mail, and sent her on her way, according to a report from a watchdog group.
That same night, Boon pulled over Antonio Huerta for failing to stop at a stop sign, something he denies. Boon also asked Huerta for proof of insurance. Huerta couldn't find it, so Boon went back to his car to write a ticket. Meanwhile, Huerta found his insurance card, which had expired three days earlier. He told Boon, however, that his insurance was current, but Boon told him to fix it in court. The judge later dismissed the ticket.
It was the type of incident that caught the attention of minorities in Gaylord, a town of 2,300 an hour southwest of the Twin Cities. It also caught the attention of the Mankato office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
The office launched an investigation about a year ago, and recently sent Gaylord Police Chief Ken Mueller its findings.
They're not pretty.
But Mueller said incidents such as the one mentioned can be misinterpreted by someone not at the scene. Boon, who did not return a call, could not undo the ticket once written. Mueller did acknowledge that there could be a perception of bias and said he had "a discussion about procedure" with Boon.
The ACLU studied tapes from a dashboard camera, dispatch records, citations and reports of 261 of Boon's stops. Of those where race could be determined, 54 percent of stops were minorities, and 59 percent of tickets were to minorities. Hispanics make up about 20 percent of the residents of Gaylord.
Ian Bratlie, staff attorney for the ACLU of Minnesota, said its investigation showed a disturbing pattern of racial profiling and harassment of Hispanic residents, many of whom work in an egg processing plant near Gaylord.
Evidence collected by the ACLU showed that while Boon usually pulled white drivers over for visible violations such as speeding or running a stop sign, those accounted for just 26 percent of minority stops.
Instead, Boon was much more likely to stop minorities for blinker violations and window tint, while "no white driver was pulled over for any of those reasons."
"I could see one or two stops like that," said Bratlie, "but this sort of smells."
License plates checked
Bratlie said Boon routinely did license plate checks on cars of Hispanics in parking lots and even on their private properties and made stops of minorities where "no probable cause seemed to exist."
"No white driver was arrested for any traffic misdemeanor," the letter says. "Minority motorists were also subjected to having their cars impounded and searched by K-9 units, something that we never saw happen to white motorists, even when they had the same violations."
Donald Lannoye, city attorney for Gaylord, said there were many inaccuracies in the investigation.
The city's own investigation disputes many of the instances cited, he said. "From our review, the ACLU characterization is incorrect," he said.
Asked if Hispanic residents trusted Gaylord police, Lannoye said: "The chief has done an excellent job in reaching out to the community. Yeah, I think they trust police."
Allegations of harassment of Hispanic residents, however, go back several years. A previous chief disagreed with similar criticisms from another agency, and declined to do anything.
"I don't know why people keep living in the past," said Lannoye. "Those issues have been addressed."
Bratlie, however, said some residents feel that after the city failed to act against Boon then, "It got worse, and he became more vindictive."
The ACLU has again asked Mueller to discipline Boon and provide training to officers in response to the findings.
Boon "was the one officer with the reputation," said Bratlie. "His actions may be independent, but because it's such a small department, the outside view is that the department has a problem."
Lannoye's response to the allegations said that disciplinary action was being considered, and the matter is scheduled to go to the City Council.
Mueller said he's reviewed all the complaints and "I feel satisfied with anything we've done." Asked about potential discipline, Mueller said it was something he'd keep to himself until it goes to the council.
Bratlie said litigation against the city is a possibility, but he hopes instead to work something out. "We're pretty confident in our data," he said.
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