Black drivers in a section of north Minneapolis are disproportionately pulled over for minor infractions and therefore are far more likely than whites to be patted down or have their vehicles searched, according to a new citywide study by the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office.

But chief public defender Mary Moriarty stressed Friday that the report is preliminary, and that her office will follow up to see whether blacks were disproportionately arrested during these stops.

"Our hope is that this will open up a conversation about what to do about these disparities," she said. "Police do tremendous damage to the community by stopping people in an indiscriminate way to look for dope or guns."

The report found that 54 percent of the 5,113 motorists stopped citywide from January to Sept. 11 of this year for equipment violations, like a broken taillight or headlight, were black, even though African-Americans make up only about 19 percent of the city's population. On the other hand, 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.

Three out of four drivers whose cars were searched in the first nine months of this year were black — 395 of the 525 cars searched.

In 477 (9 percent) of stops, police searched the driver. In 76 percent of those searches, the driver was black; 13 percent of the time, they were white.

Moriarty cautioned against reading too much into the numbers without the accompanying arrest data.

"Police officers do have license plate readers, so we don't actually know whether the police officers are looking at particular people that they know and using an equipment violation to justify the search," Moriarty said. She said that such searches are allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but added that the high court has failed to consider whether a racially motivated stop might be a pretext to search a vehicle.

She called the disparities "alarming," particularly on the city's North Side. Of the 1,392 North Side traffic stops through Sept. 11, 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. In 22 percent of those stops, police searched vehicles or people. The overwhelming majority of those who were patted down or whose vehicles were searched were black.

In the Fourth Ward, some of whose neighborhoods are among the most impoverished and crime-ridden in the city, black drivers made up 91 percent of the overall traffic stops, and were nearly twice as likely to have their vehicles searched than motorists citywide. According to 2015 data, the Fourth Ward's population is only 33 percent black.

The Star Tribune on Friday obtained a PowerPoint presentation of the report, but not the study itself.

Analyzing the results

Moriarty said she wonders whether the most recent findings are proof that officers are acting on their unconscious biases or something else.

The report also made several specific policy recommendations, including discouraging officers from pulling over vehicles for an equipment violation unless there is an immediate threat to public safety, or searching vehicles "solely based on smelling marijuana."

The report was authored by Jess Braverman, an attorney with the office's Special Litigation Unit who conducted analysis for another recent report, which found significant racial disparities in undercover buy-busts targeting small-level marijuana dealers downtown.

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo quickly ordered an end to that practice after receiving the report, while saying that his officers were not specifically targeting minorities.

Braverman said she had heard anecdotally that people in certain neighborhoods were being pulled over for often-vague pretexts, but that only recently did she think to take a closer look at department stop data.

"My own clients had been complaining, and I realized that judges don't see all of those situations where nothing's brought to court because nothing's found," she said. "I expected there to be disparities in the results, but I didn't expect them to be so extreme."

In a statement Friday, Arradondo acknowledged that "unfortunately, racial disparities continue to exist in many facets of our public safety and criminal justice work," but cautioned that any report must be viewed in context.

"It's first important to note that simply reviewing data that points to a disparity, then drawing a conclusion without including context, community safety concerns and recent changes in MPD traffic stop practices, can give a distorted view of not only the what but more importantly the why," he said, adding that overall traffic stops are down.

He added that some racial disparities reflect 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. Some of the extra enforcement comes at the request of residents fed up by unchecked crime, he said.

Police union President Bob Kroll said that such stops are a vital tool to keeping communities safe. Often, he said, a motorist's behavior upon being pulled over will tip officers off to the presence of guns or drugs in the vehicle.

"Hey, Timothy McVeigh was stopped by a traffic stop," he said, adding that he hadn't yet seen the public defender's report. "You know, look no further."

He said that officers don't target drivers because of their race, but rather are simply enforcing the law. "Hey, you don't like being stopped by the cops? Don't give them a reason to stop you," Kroll said.

Other recent studies have raised similar concerns.

Anika Bowie, criminal justice reform chair of the Minneapolis NAACP, said the racially disproportionate stops are further straining relationships with communities where residents are distrustful of law enforcement.

"It's not only something I'm happy people are researching and also finding data, but I'm hoping it's going to inform other initiatives, as far as divesting from over-policing and racial profiling," she said.

She saw the report's findings as another example of the broad discretion afforded to police officers. "Just given the racial backdrop ... it doesn't take much for law enforcement to say that they had suspicion or there was probable cause," she said.

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064