It was encouraging to see the rapid response from Minneapolis city and police officials to clear-cut racial disparities in downtown marijuana arrests. After learning that 46 of 47 people arrested for selling small amounts of marijuana in sting operations this year were black, Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said they would halt the stings. And the Hennepin County attorney said charges against 47 people arrested in the first five months of 2018 would be dismissed.
Frey took action after the county’s chief public defender alerted him to the apparent racial profiling in the arrests. Officials were right to be concerned. During these times of increased sensitivity about police-community relations, MPD should pay close attention to whom they arrest and under what circumstances.
At the same time, the city must address — perhaps in ways other than arrests — the range of lesser livability offenses that occur downtown. If unchecked, frequent, visible drug transactions, panhandling and harassing speech and behaviors do have an impact on how safe workers, residents and visitors feel.
Handling marijuana offenses is a tough challenge. While selling and possessing even small amounts remains illegal federally and in Minnesota, several states have approved recreational use of marijuana. All of those arrested in the Minneapolis sting operation were charged with felonies even though almost all of the cases involved 1 to 2 grams of marijuana sold for $10 to $20.
Nevertheless, some downtown neighborhood and business groups believe the stings have indeed made the area safer and want them to continue. They argue that open-air drug sales attract other criminal problems such as robberies and gun use because sellers are believed to have cash and might carry firearms for protection.
Those who support the stings also point out that violent and overall crime has dropped significantly downtown from the same time last year — in part, they contend, because police have focused on lesser crimes.
MPD reports that between Jan. 1 and June 11, reports of violent crime fell 29 percent in downtown’s First Precinct. Total violent crime arrests were down 37 percent, while arrests for nonviolent crimes increased nearly 20 percent. During the same period, there were no homicides, compared with three last year.
Officials acknowledge that some of that decrease may be attributable to increased security during the Super Bowl in February. However, during the first five months of the year police also stepped up their efforts and deployed more officers downtown. The question is: How much did the lower-level arrests contribute to the overall decrease in crime?
Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty thinks they only hurt those who were picked up. “I am obviously pleased they are dismissing the cases,” she told the Star Tribune. “It would have been better had they not charged them in the first place.” She added that she hopes prosecutors will join motions by her office to expunge the 47 arrests and charges “because even though the cases are dismissed, having an arrest and charge on their records will create problems for employment and rental housing.”
City Council Member Steve Fletcher, whose ward includes downtown, said aggressively pursuing low-level pot crimes isn’t the best use of police resources. He said the racial profiling in Minneapolis policing that he found while doing research in 2014 continues today. And, Fletcher said, current strategies such as diversion programs, confiscating illegal guns and targeting repeat offenders have more impact on crime reduction than small marijuana busts.
That’s good advice as MPD and city officials continue to evaluate their strategies to pinpoint the best ways to improve public safety citywide.