One of Minneapolis’ biggest traffic headaches also continues to be among its most underinvestigated.

In 2019, police responded to more than 4,000 hit-and-run complaints but made arrests in less than 1% of the cases, according to data collected by the Star Tribune.

Department officials and some City Council members blamed the low clearance rate at least partly on the absence of a dedicated traffic unit to patrol high-collision areas and crack down on drunken, distracted and speeding drivers. Council Member Linea Palmisano wonders how the city plans to enforce new speeding laws without a greater police presence.

“I wish we could look at our roadways better for pure safety,” Palmisano said. Her colleagues on the public safety committee outvoted her earlier this month to reject applying for a $1.3 million federal grant that would have helped improve traffic enforcement. “It is frustrating, that if you look at crash data, that we’re only going to make something better after somebody’s been injured.”

The low rate of arrests in minor hit-and-runs also comes as the department is grappling to define its role in road safety, amid debate over whether traffic cameras and better-engineered roads might do more to keep travelers safer than adding officers.

MPD stopped investigating most hit-and-runs after 2012, when staff cuts forced its traffic unit to focus on more serious crashes. The policy is spelled out on the department’s website: “Only hit-and-run cases with serious injuries or fatalities are investigated.”

A Star Tribune analysis found that hit-and-run suspects were arrested at similar percentages in each of the five police precincts, although the Fifth Precinct in southwest Minneapolis had the lowest rate. As the number of incidents has slowly fallen in each of the past two years, so has the percentage of cases that led to arrests, the analysis found. In 2019, police arrested a suspect in only 31 of 4,234 cases, for a rate of 0.7%.

In the past five years, police made an arrest in 1,374 of 20,139 hit-and-run cases, or about 7%. When injuries were involved, the arrest rate rose to 10%. Citywide, both the number of hit-and-runs and arrest rates peaked in 2017; police arrested someone in at least 15% of the nearly 5,000 cases that year.

Officials cautioned that the analysis is preliminary, because an undetermined number of cases may yet be solved.

Research suggests that alcohol and drugs factor into both the collisions and the motorists’ decisions to flee.

Some absconders may fear they have more to lose by waiting for police to arrive — for example, those with a suspended license, lapsed insurance or an arrest warrant, said Subasish Das, a researcher at Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute. Das said other variables that affect flight from the scene include the time of the crash, weather, traffic conditions and whether there is a “drinking place or a bar” nearby.

Pat Netka, a cabinetmaker and longtime North Sider, knows firsthand the frustration of finding one’s vehicle with a newly dented bumper or smashed side-view mirror — and the perpetrator nowhere to be found. Last October, an uninsured and unlicensed driver from another state smashed into his van as it sat parked outside Netka’s home in the 4200 block of N. Sheridan Avenue. He said his liability insurance wouldn’t pay for repairs.

While things could’ve turned out worse, Netka said, the experience left him bitter.

“How come nobody got arrested?” Netka recalled telling responding officers. “I’m out of a van.”

The findings come as the city embarks on an ambitious campaign to promote traffic safety for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Earlier this month, officials announced that the speed limit will be reduced to 25 mph on arterial streets and 20 mph on residential streets starting next year, as part of the “Vision Zero” initiative. That program, modeled after similar efforts in other U.S. cities, aims at eliminating traffic deaths on city streets by 2027 through better street design, traffic enforcement and education.

Ethan Fawley, Vision Zero’s coordinator, said in an earlier interview that research found that motorists adjusted to new speed limits without changes in enforcement. He added that expanding the pool of licensed drivers will make city streets safer — in part by increasing the likelihood that motorists won’t flee a crash scene.

“So, for example, we hear and recognize that you can’t get driver’s education anywhere in north Minneapolis. The high school programs are in other parts of the city,” Fawley said.

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham has pushed to bring back the traffic unit after receiving frequent driving-related complaints from residents of his North Side ward. At the same time, he worries that more enforcement as it’s historically been done will only lead to more minority drivers being stopped and searched by police.

“That is very challenging territory because that means we have to really rethink what traffic enforcement looks like in a way that furthers road safety rather than simply criminalizing black and brown people,” Cunningham said in an interview earlier this year.

Police officials counter that the department has moved from the “stop anything that moves” style of enforcement in favor of a more surgical and data-driven approach. In fact, stops dropped by nearly 70% between 2010 and 2017 — from roughly 92,400 stops to 29,150. Still, resistance to stepped-up enforcement has risen in recent years. For instance, a budget proposal to add three officers to the unit was rejected in December.

The department’s four traffic investigators — 20 fewer than it had in the late 1990s — are not only responsible for hit-and-run cases but also with reviewing all police pursuits and investigating crashes involving police and other city vehicles.

These days, most minor crashes, hit-and-run or otherwise, fall to patrol officers. All precincts have dedicated “traffic response cars” that handle citizen complaints about drivers blowing through stop signs or speeding through alleys where children play, but otherwise do little enforcement on their own.

That means that cases without an injury often go uninvestigated.

James Courteau was at a doctor’s office in October when someone smashed into a red convertible he had just spent $2,000 to restore that summer. He came outside to find “the whole side of the car caved in.” The episode was made all the more frustrating by getting the runaround from police and his insurance company in the months that followed, he said.

“It leaves me feeling like the rules only apply to the people who feel that the rules apply to them,” he said. “There’s no enforcement of the traffic laws, there’s no enforcement to the insurance carrying rules.”

 

Staff writers MaryJo Webster and Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.