The first comprehensive look at St. Paul traffic stops in a decade shows that black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped for equipment violations or investigative reasons in 2017, and almost three times more likely to be frisked or searched.
Black residents make up 14 percent of St. Paul’s driving-age population, but 33 percent of the drivers in nearly 32,700 traffic stops that occurred in 2017 were black, according to data compiled by the St. Paul Police Department.
Most of the drivers stopped by St. Paul police in 2017 were white, but at a rate lower than their share of the driving-age population in St. Paul. The same was true of Asian, Latino and American Indian drivers.
The St. Paul Police Department released the data late last month as part of ongoing transparency efforts. The department has tracked traffic stops since 2001 and first publicly released the data in 2016, after Chief Todd Axtell was appointed that summer.
Police around the metro area have faced complaints about racial bias in traffic stops in the wake of the 2016 death of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights. The St. Paul resident was shot by a St. Anthony police officer after a traffic stop.
St. Paul police say they hope more comprehensive records detailing which drivers are stopped and why — along with regular review of the data — will help address community concerns.
“That’s what we asked for, and we got it,” said Dianne Binns, president of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP. “I can say this about the St. Paul Police Department: They do work with the community. … They are learning how to do community policing.”
Last year, officers entered the driver’s race for nearly every traffic stop. In addition, the department also required that officers’ body cameras be turned on for all traffic stops. In 2015, nearly 45 percent of traffic stop records didn’t identify the driver’s race.
Police review the data
St. Paul Police Department spokesman Steve Linders said officers and their supervisors review the traffic stop data together. He said that officers’ response to this process has been largely positive.
Binns said she’s encouraged that officers are examining the data, but she and others in the NAACP wonder what the department will do if the reviews expose racial biases among officers. They plan to discuss this with St. Paul officers during their next quarterly meeting with the department, she said.
Linders said that officers displaying racial biases would undergo training or work one-on-one with superiors to resolve the issues.
“We try to do everything possible to acknowledge our implicit biases … if we can be aware of those biases, we can understand how they might affect the way we do our job,” Linders said.
Why drivers are stopped
Last year was also the first time that St. Paul required its officers to record the reason for each traffic stop. Linders said that is an effort to make sure that officers stop drivers based on behavior and safety.
Black drivers were overrepresented, relative to their share of the driving-age population, in stops for equipment violations, such as broken taillights, and in stops made for investigative reasons.
The St. Paul NAACP has urged the department to track the reasons for years, Binns said, as it’s an important step in ensuring officers stop drivers only for legitimate causes.
More police, more stops
Linders said the higher proportion of stops involving black drivers could be a result of the department’s recent focus on gun violence.
“Unfortunately, areas of the city where reports of shots fired are the highest also tend to be some of the more diverse areas of the city, so we have a high concentration of officers in those areas,” Linders said.
Linders said that records on the reasons for traffic stops provide other information as well.
“We know this year that moving violations accounted for the vast majority of stops,” Linders said. “That tells us that our efforts to address distracted driving or pedestrian crosswalk violations could be paying off.”
More black drivers frisked
The 2017 data also show that black drivers were nearly three times more likely to be frisked or searched than white drivers in 2017.
That disparity is “troubling,” said Frank Baumgartner, a co-author of a 2017 study analyzing data from over 55 million traffic stops nationwide and the author of a forthcoming book on traffic stop data.
“Those are quite high numbers,” he said. “They’re pretty consistent and pretty concerning.”
About 53 percent of drivers frisked in 2017 were black, compared with about 40 percent in 2001. The St. Paul Police Department has consistently tracked the race of the drivers frisked and searched, allowing that data to be analyzed for long-term trends.
Systematic reviews like these are becoming more common nationwide, said Baumgartner, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill political science professor.
“It’s really good practice for the police chiefs and officers to look at the data officer by officer on a regular basis,” he said.
Rilyn Eischens is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.