A newly released study by the Maplewood Police Department concluded that its officers showed no racial bias in making arrests in 2017.
“Maplewood police are being equitable in our police activity,” Scott Nadeau, Maplewood police chief and public safety director, said in an interview last week. “We don’t see any bias in our traffic stops, searches, arrests or enforcement.”
However, others who reviewed the 37-page report said that the department may be premature in drawing such conclusions. While applauding the department for putting a spotlight on the issue, they said more data is needed, adding that some statistics raise questions about the possibility of bias by Maplewood officers in making nondiscretionary arrests, such as arrests made on domestic abuse and shoplifting calls.
Attorney Teresa Nelson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said she disagreed with the report’s conclusion that no bias was found in the arrests.
“We see disparities in Maplewood in who they are searching,” Nelson said. “Whereas the white population is over 60 percent, the number of white people searched is only 35 percent, much lower than one would expect. So black people, people of color, are much more likely to be searched.”
According to the report, there were “large differences in the racial makeup of discretionary and nondiscretionary arrests” in 2017. The report found that “minorities, particularly blacks,” were disproportionately represented in nondiscretionary arrests.
Nondiscretionary arrests, Nadeau said, are those required by either state law or department policy. Examples are when an officer responds to a domestic assault call and finds evidence of an assault, or when store personnel call police to report a shoplifter.
But when Maplewood officers could choose whether to make an arrest — such as with calls about disorderly conduct or when an officer finds someone who is trespassing — “the rate fell in line with community demographics. The same pattern was followed in traffic enforcement,” the report said.
People of color comprised about 30 percent of Maplewood’s population of 41,000 in 2017, according to the city’s Racial Equity Committee. Wilder Research found that 33.8 percent of the city’s population were people of color, the report said. Maplewood has 52 sworn police officers.
Michelle Phelps, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota who specializes in criminal justice, said it was commendable that the department was analyzing bias and making its data public.
“I don’t think that one could conclude that ... there is no racial bias here,” she said.
However, she added, “I certainly think they are showing ... that in terms of the arrest pattern, that most of the racial disparities in arrests are outside of their control.”
Still, she said, comparing the percentage of arrests to the city’s racial composition is problematic.
“They point out that a lot of the arrests are people who are not from the city, so looking at the demographics of the city can get you only so far,” she said.
The report said that 79 percent of the 1,211 adult offenders arrested last year lived outside Maplewood, and that 76 percent of the 259 juvenile offenders were not Maplewood residents.
Phelps and Nelson said the data raise larger questions in the debate over how police operate and make decisions.
“One of the things we as a community need to address are the ways our own racial biases play into biased policing,” Nelson said.
Told of Nelson and Phelps’ concerns, Nadeau said that he would agree with much of what they said and that he hoped the study would generate a productive discussion. He said his office lacked the data and expertise to examine economic backgrounds of offenders and its impact on arrests.
“A lot of different factors go into arrests, stops and searches,” he said. “This is one of the first comprehensive efforts in Minnesota that really tries to do a deeper dive into the data to determine what some of those factors are.”
Nadeau said he couldn’t say whether a store demonstrated bias in its apprehension of shoplifters. “But one of the things we are looking at,” he said, “is was there a bias by the criminal justice system, and in particular one of our officers, that led to more people of color being brought into the criminal justice system.”