Minneapolis police abruptly ended the practice of targeting small-scale marijuana sellers downtown after revelations that nearly every one arrested was black.
In a series of rushed announcements Thursday, authorities said that police would no longer conduct sting operations targeting low-level marijuana sales, and charges against 47 people arrested in the first five months of 2018 would be dismissed.
The extraordinary turnaround came after Hennepin County’s chief public defender contacted Mayor Jacob Frey to complain about what looked like blatant racial profiling. Frey then directed Chief Medaria Arradondo to stop the stings.
“I believe strongly that marijuana should be a lowest-level enforcement priority and that it should be fully legalized at the state level,” Frey said in a statement Thursday.
“The fact that racial disparities are so common nationwide in the enforcement of marijuana laws is one of the reasons I support full legalization.”
Thursday’s announcement by the chief signals a shift toward a more lenient approach pursued in other major U.S. cities. Drug-related arrests by Minneapolis police have already fallen nearly two thirds from 2007 to 2016, police records show.
But in recent years, Minneapolis police have stepped up their presence on Hennepin Avenue in response to concerns about safety downtown. Using undercover officers posing as buyers, they arrested 47 people for selling marijuana on Hennepin between 5th and 6th streets.
The Hennepin County Public Defender’s office determined that 46 of those arrested were black. All were charged as felonies. Some were put in diversion programs, some were convicted and at least one man went to prison.
“Almost all of those cases involve a sale of 1-2 grams of marijuana for a total of $10-$20,” assistant county public defender Jess Braverman wrote in a May 31 court document.
Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty said she called Frey last week about the racial disparities, and she said the mayor pledged to have them halted.
“Approaching black men and women who are low income and homeless and then having the county attorney charge them with felony drug sales makes me very angry and disappointed,” Moriarty said in an interview Thursday.
Arradondo announced Thursday in a 12:30 p.m. news conference that he had discontinued stings targeting low-level marijuana sales at the request of Frey. “While the intention was good, it had an unintended consequence,” he said.
He said that during the downtown police effort, officers arrested other people who were in possession of illegal guns and other drugs such as opioids, although that was separate from the marijuana arrests.
Arradondo defended his officers, saying they were acting professionally and not targeting black people because of their race. A police spokesman said that while the undercover stings were being stopped, police would still make arrests for marijuana sales.
At 3 p.m., Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman issued a news release that said he had informed Arradondo that he would not charge any more people arrested in the stings and that he was reviewing the remaining cases.
An hour later, his office notified Moriarty that all the cases were being dismissed.
“These undercover drug stings by the Minneapolis Police Department occurred without our knowledge,” Freeman said in a statement. “Because they occurred over a period of months and were distributed to about a half-dozen of our attorneys for prosecution, we did not detect any pattern.”
Though his office was alerted about the problem earlier, Freeman said he only learned about the situation Tuesday and “took immediate steps.” He said he told Arradondo he “would not be charging these types of cases” and began an immediate review of the remaining cases brought to his office’s attention.
Besides getting the cases dismissed, Moriarty pressed Freeman’s office to free one person who had been imprisoned, whom she did not identify, and asked the county attorney’s office to join her office in a motion to expunge the arrests from her clients’ records.
Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for Freeman, said the county attorney’s office was focused on dismissing the cases and had not considered the issue of expungement. He said that the case of the person imprisoned as a result of the sting is being reviewed.
In a court document, Braverman wrote that the arrests “have resulted in felony convictions for numerous black defendants who had been targeted, and all the devastating collateral consequences that go along with such convictions: jail time, prison time, and even deportation proceedings.”
Details about the stings were described in a case involving the arrest of one suspect, Shauntez Palmer, who was charged with fifth degree sale of 1.6 grams of marijuana.
An undercover officer stated in her report that she purchased marijuana from another person, Ameir Davis on Hennepin Avenue between N. 5th Street and N. 6th Street, while Palmer acted as a lookout.
Both men were arrested and brought to jail.
The department’s First Precinct in conjunction with other precincts and the Metro Transit police sent undercover officers to that block on Jan. 24, Feb. 13, Feb. 28, March 15, April 11 and May 24, resulting in 47 arrests.
“On the dates of the stings, officers are approaching people of color, individuals and groups, and asking to buy drugs,” Braverman wrote. “Officers have directly asked black men to facilitate drug deals with other black men, and have then requested that the facilitator be charged with sale. They are submitting the cases for felony charges.”
Moriarty said that the only white person arrested was not approached by police, but had himself approached an undercover officer about selling some marijuana.
In a letter to Arradondo on May 29, Moriarty wrote, “A review of the cases received by our office strongly suggests a trend of racial profiling under the guise of a ‘livability’ detail.”
Mel Reeves, a human rights activist who lives in Minneapolis, said he was cheered by the decision to halt the stings. “It’s not news that black people are targeted by law enforcement on marijuana charges,” he said. “It’s good news they are recognizing the disparities and doing something about it.”
As a council member, Frey championed an ordinance that brought city penalties for small-scale marijuana possession in line with state law, reducing the crime from a misdemeanor to petty misdemeanor.
Frey said in his statement that while he supports the legalization of marijuana, it “does not negate the need for our officers to make the necessary arrests to get guns off our streets and end the sale of life-threatening narcotic drugs like heroin.”
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