Two laws criticized as tools used by the police to target minorities may soon be taken off the books in Minneapolis.
The city ordinances prohibiting lurking and spitting have been the subject of fierce debate for years and, more recently, the focus of two packed public hearings. Wednesday, after listening to two hours of testimony — including some from people who described being stopped by the police near their homes and schools likely because of their race — the council’s Public Safety Committee voted 4-0 to repeal the laws.
The issue will now move on to the full council, where committee members said they believe support is strong.
Council Member Cam Gordon, who first pushed for a repeal of the lurking ordinance in 2008, said he believes sentiment on the council and in the public has shifted. He said that is because of more public conversations about race and the very different experiences people can have while living in the same city. He pointed to the comments of one speaker, who noted that it was unlikely she’d ever be stopped and accused of lurking because she is white.
“I was struck by the comment about how there’s two parallel cities,” Gordon said. “I don’t think people believed it or understood it as much in 2008 as they do now.”
At Wednesday’s public hearing, 27 of the 28 people who spoke said they were in favor of repealing the laws. Some said they were vague, unconstitutional and discriminatory. Some held up signs that read: “Standing is not a crime” and “My son is not a crime.”
They pointed to Minneapolis police statistics, which show that of the nearly 400 people arrested for lurking between 2009 and 2014, 59 percent were black, while 24 percent were white. Meanwhile, a majority of the people who reported lurking offenses — 69 percent — were white, while 12 percent were black. The spitting ordinance has been rarely enforced, with a total of 29 arrests over the same time period.
Both are misdemeanor offenses. The lurking ordinance prohibits people from lying “in wait” or being “concealed with intent to commit any crime or unlawful act.”
Several speakers told stories about being stopped by police while going about routine activities: walking outside after studying for a college exam, standing in a park with friends, getting off a light-rail train.
Council Member Abdi Warsame, who called repealing the ordinances a “no-brainer,” shared his own story:
A few years ago, while working in Roseville for Wells Fargo, Warsame was stopped while walking back from lunch. He said police were accusatory and demanded to know what was in the bag he was carrying, because a tall black man was suspected of shoplifting from a nearby electronics store. Warsame opened his bag. It held a salad from Boston Market.
“We need to build confidence in the city, so that residents can travel wherever they want and shouldn’t feel threatened,” he said.
Two other council members on the committee, Linea Palmisano and Blong Yang also voted to repeal the ordinance. Council Member Kevin Reich and Council President Barb Johnson, were absent for the vote.
Johnson, who was present for an earlier portion of the meeting, expressed concerns about doing away with ordinances she said are effective law enforcement tools in her north Minneapolis ward.
“As I look through the reports of 2014 of the lurking arrests that have been made in my North Side neighborhoods, I am convinced the police have adequate reason,” she said. “I think they took potential burglars off the streets, potential robbers, and I appreciate their work.”
Similar arguments were made by speakers representing neighborhood and business groups in an earlier public hearing.
Police Lt. Bob Kroll, president-elect of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, has defended the laws. He called the lurking ordinance a “very useful tool” that is “reactive and proactive.”
Advocates of the changes, however, said doing away with the laws could be an important first step toward improving relations between police and minority residents who feel targeted by their enforcement.
Some urged the council to look at doing away with other ordinances, such as loitering and curfew restrictions.
“It’s not enough to keep saying the problem with policing is we have good cops and bad cops. … If we know that these young people are being harassed, there’s no need to sit around and talk about it,” said North Side resident Mel Reeves. “Let’s do something about it.”