Local civil rights groups are calling on Minneapolis city officials to overhaul local law enforcement to drive down what they say are overwhelming disparities in arrests for low-level crimes between white and black residents.
Advocates at a City Hall news conference Thursday called for rethinking curfew enforcement and low-level drug arrests, stronger civilian oversight of police and finding ways to encourage more Minneapolis residents to join the police force.
The news conference came the day before a final Minneapolis City Council vote on whether to repeal decades old spitting and lurking laws, which have come under scrutiny for disproportionately affecting minorities.
Activists called the repeals a small step in what should be a far more sweeping, complex and long-term effort to overhaul the police department and city ordinances.
They held the event in part to call attention to an American Civil Liberties Union report, released late last month, which found that blacks were 8.7 times more likely to face arrest in Minneapolis for so-called “low-level” offenses like lurking, trespassing and consuming alcohol in public.
“The Minneapolis police have spent millions in enforcing these low-level offenses in communities in north Minneapolis and in south Minneapolis,” ACLU Minnesota legal director Teresa Nelson said Thursday. “And these millions of dollars that have been spent aren’t solving any problems. They’re only making them worse.”
Police officials have said the ACLU numbers don’t tell the whole story, and are skewed by a small number of people who are arrested repeatedly.
Chief Janeé Harteau said she has been discussing racial issues surrounding law enforcement with other major city police chiefs as a board member of the Police Executive Research Forum. “I continue to have open and candid conversations on race and policing on the local level, but it is imperative people realize this is also a national issue,” Harteau said in a statement after the news conference.
Crowds are expected to gather at City Hall on Friday morning for the City Council vote on lurking and spitting. Despite unanimous council committee support, the repeals face opposition from Council President Barb Johnson, police union head Lt. Bob Kroll and the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce — which raised the issue in an e-mail newsletter Thursday.
“We are about to embark on a $50 million reconstruction of Nicollet Mall (1/2 of the money provided by business),” wrote chamber President Todd Klingel. “I, for one, do not want to see this effort to make Minnesota’s main street more inviting thwarted because people are allowed to lurk in the trees and spit on the lovely new surfaces.”
Johnson wrote an op-ed published in the Star Tribune last week arguing that low-level crimes adversely affect the city’s residents, and repealing them makes no one safer. “If you’re a homeowner who has to deal with suspicious behavior in your back alley, or if your car is hit by an unlicensed, uninsured driver, you know these are real problems,” Johnson wrote.
Compared to broader reforms, lurking and spitting repeals may not have a dramatic impact. Police issued 65 citations for lurking and just one for spitting in 2014, according to city staff reports. But 59 percent of the 392 arrests for lurking between 2009 and 2014 were of black people.
Asked about priorities following Friday’s vote, Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds called for a task force of community members, law enforcement representatives and government officials to examine criminal justice changes comprehensively rather than tackling the issue “in a piecemeal fashion.”
“Unless you have a group that is actually looking at comprehensive criminal justice reform, we will continue to address these issues on a case-by-case basis, which only relieves part of the problem,” Levy-Pounds said.
She said the low-level arrests have larger “collateral consequences,” which affects “people’s ability to gain housing, to gain employment, and locks them in a perpetual cycle of feeling like a second-class citizen within their own community.”
Council Member Cam Gordon, who co-sponsored the repeal of the lurking and spitting laws, said some future reforms will also require help from the Legislature.
“We were fighting at the state for a long time to get subpoena power for our civilian review authority, and we couldn’t get that,” said Gordon, adding that the Legislature also prohibited cities from implementing police residency requirements.
Adja Gildersleve with Black Lives Matter said more accountability is needed around curfew arrests. The ACLU report found that curfew violations account for 40 percent of low-level charges against young people.
“What can the police do differently instead of picking up the youth and criminalizing them and having them end up in the incarceration system?” Gildersleve said. “What can we do so that they’re safe? So that they have a place to go? Because a lot of them are actually homeless.”
Some reforms can be accomplished through the budgeting process, said Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.
“Either we can continue doing the same thing we’ve been doing, which is cutting a check — a blank check with very little oversight — or we can think very critically about how we’re spending those dollars, how many officers we’re adding to which communities,” Newby said.
The ACLU report recommended expanding pre-arrest diversion programs, ensuring officers are not rewarded for low-level arrests, prohibiting improper searches, improving accessibility to data on interactions with the police and “establishing an empowered civilian review body” with the authority to punish officers, among other reforms.