Black drivers are stopped, searched and frisked at disproportionately higher rates in St. Paul, according to 15 years of traffic stop data St. Paul police released Wednesday.
The data shows a disparity among blacks, but not for Hispanics or Asians.
The analysis of 676,700 traffic stops between 2001 and 2016 came as no surprise to black leaders, who say it provides empirical weight to the anecdotes and troubling police encounters black men and women have long experienced.
"We've known it," said Tyrone Terrill, president of the African-American Leadership Council. "We see it. But we hope that we're going to move in a different direction, and that [Police] Chief [Todd] Axtell will do the right thing … in terms of sending the right message."
Black men and women account for 28 percent of all drivers stopped in the past 15 years. Over the same time frame, they made up 13 percent of the population. Whites accounted for 39 percent of drivers who were stopped and made up about 59 percent of the city's population. Asians made up 8 percent of drivers stopped, and made up 15 percent of the city's population. Hispanics accounted for 6 percent of drivers stopped and made up 8 percent of the population. The statistics account for "no data" reports, or traffic stops where race wasn't apparently recorded.
In an interview Wednesday, Axtell stopped short of saying that implicit bias could have played a role in the traffic stop numbers.
"I don't believe for a minute that we have officers … who are looking to target people of color for traffic stops," Axtell said. "There are many factors that go into these numbers. I'm saying that if you're human, you possess implicit bias, and officers are human."
Axtell said the information was "raw data," and that he didn't know why the numbers were skewed. A new records management system scheduled to roll out in 2017 should better collect and track the reason drivers are stopped, he said.
"Nothing in this data really comes as a shocking surprise to me," Axtell said.
Release of the data comes at a critical point in police-community relations, with public outcry about racial bias and police use-of-force louder than ever and law enforcement officials responding in ways previously unseen.
Last month, the Ramsey County attorney's office charged St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez with three felony counts — second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm — for fatally shooting Philando Castile, a black man, during a July 6 traffic stop. Yanez is the first officer in modern Minnesota history charged for an on-duty killing.
Although Castile was killed in nearby Falcon Heights, St. Paul became ground zero for several protests. Axtell said that he had pledged, while campaigning for the chief's job, to release the data before he was eventually chosen as chief by the City Council in June.
St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus said the data is incomplete because many stops occurred in high-crime areas, and likely overlap with police response to 911 calls or active investigations.
"These numbers show nothing," Titus said. "Throwing these stats out without any context is irresponsible."
He also declined to say whether he believes implicit bias was a factor in the stops.
"Our officers are in those locations because those happen to overlap and be areas with our highest 911 calls," Axtell said. "And that has to be part of the conversation. It isn't an excuse, but to be fair, it has to be an important part of the conversation."
In addition to ongoing implicit bias training, Axtell said he wants all officers to review their traffic stop data annually with supervisors in a "nondisciplinary setting where authentic conversations can take place."
The department will release traffic stop data on an annual basis, said police spokesman Steve Linders.
Black leaders said Wednesday's data shows just how vulnerable black male drivers are to becoming the next Castile.
Black male drivers accounted for 20 percent of all traffic stops, and about 7 percent of St. Paul's population. White males made up 25 percent of all traffic stops and 28 percent of the population. White women made up 14 percent of the traffic stops and 31 percent of the population.
About 18 percent of the stops don't identify race. Linders says this is due to a variety of issues, including race data not being collected, race data not being recorded due to technical issues, and transitions to new records systems that led to temporary glitches.
"We hear complaints from the community all of the time" about racial profiling in traffic stops, said Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul NAACP. "I knew it wasn't going to be great … Unfortunately, that's where we're at in America."
Martin, a former St. Paul city attorney, said he hasn't personally experienced any troubling traffic stops himself, but that he worries for his 20-year-old son.
"It just hasn't come to my doorstep, but I'm concerned about it every time I do drive," he said. "I'm concerned that [my son] makes it home every night when he's home from college."
Terrill, a longtime activist, said he, like many others, has to take special precautions to compensate for possible police bias when he's stopped while driving. Terrill keeps his hands visible on the steering wheel, speaks calmly and keeps his driver's license somewhere handy and safe.
"You always have to be careful," he said. "Any black man like myself, when the [squad] lights go on, the thought goes through your head, 'Is this going to be the last time I get stopped?' "
St. Paul police data shows that not only do black drivers get stopped disproportionately often, they also get searched and frisked more often than any other demographic. Black drivers make up half of those who were frisked or searched, while whites make up just less than one-third.
Terrill and Martin said they hope Axtell will use the data to improve training for his officers and to hold them accountable.
"It's an opportunity to change, and it's an opportunity for the chief to have a policy in place that this type of behavior and conduct will not be tolerated," Terrill said. "It's important that the chief sends a strong message to his officers."
Staff interactive data journalist Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.
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