Minneapolis residents and workers packed a City Council hearing Wednesday to discuss potential repeal of lurking and spitting ordinances, which have become the latest flash point in a fight over laws that appear to target minorities.
“I think that these laws are really just the new Jim Crow,” said Wintana Melekin, of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, referring to racial segregation laws that limited the rights and privileges of blacks after slavery.
The effort to repeal the city’s laws has drawn the objection of the incoming police union chief, creating a fresh tension with council members backing the measure.
The lurking ordinance is a “very useful tool” that is “reactive and proactive,” said police Lt. Bob Kroll, president-elect of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis.
For example, the ordinance can be helpful at stopping potential crime when there are reports of a suspicious person looking into parked vehicles, said Kroll, who was not able to attend Wednesday’s meeting.
“Is there a law against walking down there? Is there a law against taking long glances into numerous cars?” he asked.
But the proposal also drew the new incoming head of the Minneapolis NAACP, Nekima Levy-Pounds, highlighting simmering racial tensions at a time when Mayor Betsy Hodges and City Council members have vowed to address racial inequality in the city.
Levy-Pounds said constant contact with police over these minor offenses “breeds hostility within the community.”
Lurking, which is a misdemeanor offense, outlaws lying “in wait” or being “concealed with intent to commit any crime or unlawful act.” Since 1898, when the spread of tuberculosis gripped the country, the city has had an ordinance prohibiting spitting, especially of tobacco juice.
During Wednesday’s public hearing in front of the council’s public safety committee, lawyers, civil rights advocates, businessmen and residents discussed how the potential changes could affect their lives.
Enforcement of both city ordinances has been infrequent, but unevenly carried out. Between 2009 and 2014, Minneapolis police made 392 lurking arrests. Of the arrested suspects, about 60 percent were black. From 2011 to 2014, police gave out 29 spitting citations, 13 of which were given to black suspects, 1 to a white suspect and 15 to other suspects whose race wasn’t identified.
Teresa Nelson, legal director for the Minnesota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she believes the lurking ordinance is unconstitutional and open to officers’ discretion.
“When you have vague ordinances like lurking … it allows those internalized biases to color police thinking,” Nelson said.
Most speakers, including some supporters of the local Black Lives Matter movement, which has protested police brutality, said they were in favor of the repeals.
But Joseph Finley, of Citizens for a Loring Park Community, said he was fearful that getting rid of the lurking law would put the city on a “slippery slope” that could lead to the repeal of other crimes that he said hinder livability.
“I think spitting is a terrible disgrace to our city,” Finley said.
Mike Maney, who was at the meeting to represent the city’s Downtown Council, said removing the laws from the books would be a detriment to the city.
“Our position in opposition is rooted in a larger concern that enforcement of livability and civility offenses not be devalued or de-emphasized,” the group said in a statement.
Kroll, with the police union, said these are just common-sense laws.
“The spitting, it’s a shame that you have to have laws to regulate just common decency and behavior,” Kroll said.
The repeals were proposed by City Council Members Cam Gordon and Blong Yang. Gordon attempted to get the lurking ordinance repealed in 2008 but was unsuccessful, but after the hearing Wednesday Gordon said he was “inspired” by the public testimony.
“I think really think the change we need to see isn’t necessarily the laws … it’s a bit deeper about our relationships,” Gordon said.
Yang said he was cautiously optimistic that the proposals would be approved.
“To me, it’s a logical, right thing to do,” he said.
The public hearing will resume May 20, when there will be new staff reports from the police department, health department and city attorney’s office, Yang said.