The stretch of road where Philando Castile was fatally shot by a St. Anthony police officer during a 2016 traffic stop was a well-known speed trap.
People of color often drove eight blocks or more out of their way in Falcon Heights to avoid an encounter with police, said Philando’s mother, Valerie Castile.
“Everybody knew: Don’t go on Larpenteur [Avenue] after dark because you’re going to get pulled over,” Castile told several dozen people at a Driving While Black community forum Wednesday night. “It makes us feel less-than.”
Castile and fellow social justice activists, as well as representatives of the ACLU Minnesota, the Minneapolis Police Department and Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office, served as panel members, discussing racial profiling and stark disparities in traffic stops.
Minneapolis police data show that black motorists are disproportionately pulled over for minor infractions and therefore are more likely than whites to be patted down or have their vehicles searched.
“You have a lot of innocent people get caught up when we’re looking for homicide suspects,” said Deputy Chief Art Knight, who is black.
Those statistics are worse for low-level arrests, where black people are nine to 10 times more likely to be detained, he said.
Knight, a Chicago native, said he remembers what it was like to walk down the street and watch officers slow down in their cruisers — eyeing him as a potential suspect.
Over the last three decades in law enforcement, he’s tried to help others understand their bias. Knight recently questioned a white colleague who admitted to following a car full of black adults on the North Side for multiple blocks before pulling them over. “ ‘If they had been an elderly white couple, would you have followed them?’” Knight recalled asking. “That cop had an ah-ha moment.”
Panelists agreed that racially disproportionate stops are further straining relationships with communities where residents are distrustful of law enforcement.
Teresa Nelson, an ACLU attorney, said profiling can also cause short-term economic hardship. Those unable to pay a traffic ticket can have their license suspended or revoked — and may not even know it, she said. Consequences can spiral from there the next time they’re pulled over.
Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County’s chief public defender, said her skin color ensures that she doesn’t have to worry about such encounters. “This is what privilege looks like,” said Moriarty, who is white. “When I look in the rearview mirror and see a cop, I don’t wonder whether they’re going to kill me.”
Eli Darris, of the ACLU, lamented that he doesn’t have that luxury. Since he was paroled from prison two years ago, he’s been stopped by police at least eight times.
“With each of these interactions, the probability of a negative outcome increases,” Darris said. “It creates a trust gap.”
The report detailing racial disparities in Minneapolis police stops was released last fall by the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office. It said that 54 percent of the 5,113 motorists stopped citywide from January to Sept. 11 of 2018 for equipment violations — like a broken taillight or headlight — were black, even though blacks make up only about 19 percent of the city’s population. Whites — 65 percent of the population — account for about a third of the stops. American Indians and Latinos were stopped at proportional or lower rates, the study shows. Data on how many of those stops resulted in arrests were unavailable.
Chief Medaria Arradondo has attributed some racial disparities to heightened police presence in crime-heavy areas, like the North Side, which has the city’s highest percentage of gunshot victims and has yielded more gun recoveries than any other precinct over the past decade. Yet of the nearly 1,400 North Side traffic stops, 80 percent of the drivers stopped were black, while only about 12 percent were white — a disparity that goes well beyond even the North Side’s minority population.
The Racial Justice Network recently distributed a survey to help track police encounters. Three-quarters of respondents said they felt racially profiled and half said their stops resulted in more than a warning.
Now the group is asking the city to place a moratorium on police stops for equipment violations until it can guarantee that the law will be applied equally, regardless of race.
“We’re tired of protesting,” Castile said. “We want change now.”
Staff writer Libor Jany contributed to this report.