Wading into the thorny issue of how local policing policies affect minority communities, Minneapolis leaders on Friday tossed the city’s long-standing laws against spitting and lurking.
The near-unanimous City Council passage was a victory for racial equity advocates, who said the laws were merely tools used to unfairly target people of color. They are also pushing the city to make more significant reforms, particularly in the wake of a report showing that minorities are much more frequently charged with “low-level” crimes.
But further changes are already shaping up to be more controversial, foreshadowed Friday by a statement from downtown business leaders warning that the council should step “carefully” before eliminating other laws on the books.
A previous attempt to repeal the lurking ordinance failed on a tie vote in 2008. Supporters of the repeal said the lurking ban was vague and unnecessary, since it is often accompanied by other more serious charges. They also expressed concern about its wording, which prohibits waiting or being concealed “with intent to commit any crime or unlawful act.”
“I think it’s very difficult to establish exactly what this is,” said Council Member Blong Yang, who co-sponsored the repeal. “It seems to be criminalizing certain types of thought in Minneapolis. Not actual crimes.”
Fifty-nine percent of people charged with lurking between 2009 and 2014 have been black, according to a city staff report. Council Member Cam Gordon, the measure’s other sponsor, said he was pleased the proposal had contributed to a larger conversation about race and the criminal justice system.
“This isn’t a police problem,” Gordon said. “This isn’t an attorney problem. This isn’t a court problem. … This our problem. We need to own it. We need to look at the role we play in it. And we need to see how we can change it.”
The impact of Friday’s vote may be subtle, since police said lurking accounted for only 89 arrests in 2014 — a fraction of the city’s 44,000 arrests overall. Previous city reports had said the number was actually 65. Only one arrest was made for spitting in the same period.
A proposed amendment to merely lower the punishment for spitting to a $50 fine failed. Council members emphasized that the repeal shouldn’t be seen as condoning spitting.
“It’s not a license to spit,” Yang said. “If I need to yell that at the top of my lungs anywhere in town, I will do that.”
The lone “no” vote on the council for the two measures, President Barb Johnson, said the two lurking arrests in her ward last year appeared justified based on police reports. She said her minority constituents express more concern to her about being singled out by the police department for extra scrutiny.
“This is an issue that we absolutely have to address in our city,” Johnson said. “And I think that our police department is on the right track.”
The Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and police union head Lt. Bob Kroll both opposed the repeals. Following Friday’s vote, the Downtown Council warned that it may oppose similar future changes.
“Contrary to the assertions of proponents, eliminating laws defining an expected level of conduct that help ensure public safety throughout Minneapolis will not solve the deeply rooted challenges of bias in our criminal justice system,” the council said in a statement. “Instead, we may find that the ripple effects from such changes simply undermine the security of individuals who live, work and visit here.”
Johnson expressed similar concerns about what other measures will follow the repeals, since advocates have made clear these two laws are the tip of the iceberg toward alleviating biases in the local criminal justice system.
“When we go down this path…what’s the next step? Is it disorderly conduct, that’s one of the things that I’ve heard mentioned. Is it curfew?" Johnson asked. "I hope that if we do do these things, that are perhaps a more common charge…that we involve more people than – I thank you all for being here, but we have 380,000 people that live in this city. So I want to hear their voices too.”
Mayor Betsy Hodges, who was not present at Friday's meeting, applauded the vote in a statement.
“These two ordinances are antiquated, unnecessary, and unfairly affect people of color in our community,” Hodges said. “It’s about time we got them off the books. I thank the Council for moving forward and taking this important next step to make changes that help enable more equitable outcomes.”