While many issues will face the new Minneapolis mayor elected next week, one top priority should be to reform the Minneapolis Police Department. In addition to changing a police culture that has been exposed as racially biased, the new mayor should embark on reforms that will reduce the astonishing racial disparities in arrests by MPD officers.
Putting aside the question of whether marijuana possession should even be a crime, one area especially ripe for reform is the arrest rate for such possession. Last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report stating that, nationwide, arrests for marijuana possession (one of the most common drug-related points of entry into the criminal-justice system) are often concentrated among people of color, despite strong evidence that whites use marijuana at higher rates. The disparity is even larger locally.
We should be shocked to learn that while nationally blacks are 3.73 times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, in Hennepin County they are 9.1 times more likely to be arrested. Even more disturbing, however, is that in Minneapolis blacks are 11.25 times more likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. Moreover, the racial disparity increased by 112 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Although the causes of this massive racial disparity are multifaceted, the new mayor should embark on a careful review of the Police Department to determine whether strategies implemented over the last 10 years have contributed to the increased disparity.
When policing strategies focus on activities that many feel should not be criminal offenses in the first place, sweeping into the criminal-justice system people who would not otherwise be there, a climate of mistrust of the police is fostered in those communities. We are all victimized by this, because the net effect is that public safety suffers when mistrust leads to avoidance of police interaction, making people less likely to report real crimes or to cooperate with police in the course of criminal investigations.
Even when police are targeting areas that have high levels of serious crime, they should prioritize working with communities to address and prevent those crimes rather than saturating the area with enforcement of low-level offenses.
To address these arrest disparities, the new mayor should work with the Police Department, the city attorney and county attorney to refocus police priorities. The new mayor should also work with Police Chief Janeé Harteau to bring about much-needed reforms, including adopting a new and stronger policy that strictly prohibits officers from engaging in racial profiling of persons — drivers, passengers and pedestrians alike. The policy should also unequivocally require that enforcement of state and federal laws be carried out without regard to race, ethnicity or national origin.
Any new policy will also require rigorous training about the harms of racial profiling and discrimination; investigation of all complaints in a thorough and timely manner, and appropriate discipline that includes additional diversity, sensitivity and implicit bias training of all officers with sustained bias profiling or other discrimination complaints filed against them.
The disparities that exist in marijuana possession arrests in Minneapolis are only part of the picture when it comes to racial disparities in our criminal-justice system, but it is an important piece to the puzzle and one that even in Minneapolis’ weak-mayor system the new mayor has the ability to address head-on.
Bill Pentelovitch is a partner in Maslon Edelman Borman and Brand and is a member of the board of directors and chair of the Law Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.