Minneapolis police officers have stopped thousands of people and vehicles in downtown and north Minneapolis this year for being “suspicious,” even as stops in other parts of the city have declined, city records show.

The stops — averaging about 38 a day downtown and 47 daily on the North Side so far this year, both areas that traditionally have more minorities — drew an expression of concern about possible racial profiling from the former director of the city’s Civil Rights Commission.

But police representatives and a City Council member said the stops are little more than a reflection of crime trends, including a 16 percent rise in violent crime in north Minneapolis this year over the same period last year. In some cases, higher crime and strong community concern about it led to a stronger police presence, they say.

“I’m really pleased to see [the police stops]. It tells me they’re productive,” said City Council President Barb Johnson, who lives on the North Side.

City statistics do not show the race of the person who was stopped, nor do they indicate if the stop led to a citation or arrest. The tally of suspicious stops includes those triggered by 911 calls, as well as those police initiated on their own.

The numbers were included in the city’s weekly crime statistics report, which for the most recent week recorded (Aug. 6-12) show the following:

Citywide, suspicious-vehicle stops are up 18 percent so far this year compared with the same time frame last year; suspicious-pedestrian stops are down 7 percent.

In downtown Minneapolis, such vehicle stops are up 74 percent, with pedestrian stops up 19 percent.

On the North Side, vehicle stops are up 31 percent, while pedestrian stops are up 45 percent.

By contrast, in southwest Minneapolis, suspicious-vehicle and pedestrian stops are down 7 and 21 percent, respectively — even as violent crime in that area rose by 4 percent.

Some of the increases are even more dramatic when compared with two years ago: Downtown, suspicious-person stops are up 92 percent this year in relation to the same period in 2011.

Interpretations vary

“To me, that’s just stop-and-frisk,” Kenneth Brown, former chairman of the city’s Civil Rights Commission said, referring to the police practice that was limited by a federal judge this week in New York. “They won’t explain it that way, but I guarantee you that if you have an outside source come and take a look at it, that’s what they’re going to come up with,” Brown said.

But Johnson, the council president, disputed that assertion. “I reject the profiling analogy,” she said.

Cyndi Barrington, a Minneapolis police spokeswoman, said the downtown and North Side beats were strengthened this summer with extra officers, which likely led to more stops. In addition, it may be partly the result of better recording, she said, because officers now are encouraged to record each suspicious stop.

“These numbers reflect the accountability of officers,” Barrington said. “Chief [Janeé] Harteau and the command staff have directed the officers to focus on crime. If there’s an increase in burglary in a certain area, then there’s more directed patrol in the alleyways.”

Barrington gave an example. In a recent homicide case, officers were directed to look for a specific type and color of car. That one directive may have led to several suspicious vehicle stops, she said.

The heightened police presence also is evidence of a response to increased or high-profile crimes in the areas, such as well-publicized shootings after bar closing time downtown or homicides on the North Side that got a strong community response.

“These proactive efforts are based on crime statistics and community input,” Assistant Chief Matt Clark said. “Inspectors report weekly on their results with crime reduction and focus of resources. Overall, our stops in the city are down 2 to 3 percent.”

Most telling data not at hand

University of Minnesota law Prof. Barry Feld said more information is needed to understand what’s driving up the number of stops this year.

“You also have to look at how often those stops lead to either the recovery of evidence or weapons,” he said. Such an analysis of the “hit rate” could offer clues to whether minorities get stopped more often than whites for frivolous reasons.

“That really provides you with a way to assess of whether they’re just stopping people randomly or on a hunch or real evidence of suspicious behavior,” Feld said.

A suspicion that racial profiling has been leading New York police officers to stop minorities more often than whites led U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin to declare on Monday that that city’s “stop-and-frisk” policy violated the constitutional rights of minority citizens. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has assailed the ruling, which came in a class-action lawsuit.

A 2004 study found that Minneapolis police were much more likely to search minority drivers than white drivers. The Council on Crime and Justice study used 2001 arrest data to study police contacts with the public. Among the findings was that blacks were 15 times more likely to be arrested than whites.

The Minneapolis police manual states that an officer must be able to articulate “specific facts, circumstances and conclusions” that warrant making a suspicious person or vehicle stop.