Minneapolis police will no longer pull over motorists for minor traffic violations like expired tabs or having an air freshener dangling from their rearview mirror, Chief Medaria Arradondo said in an internal memo on Thursday.
Addressing the entire department, Arradondo wrote that the move was made "recognizing the continued importance of examining how we can better utilize time, resources and operational effectiveness."
"MPD will no longer be conducting traffic stops solely for these offenses: expired tabs, an item dangling from a mirror, or not having a working license plate light," Arradondo wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Star Tribune. "The City Attorney's Office will stop prosecuting tickets for driving after suspension when the only basis for the suspension was a failure to pay fines or fees and there was no accident or other egregious driving behavior that would impact public safety."
Police critics have long argued that, much like stop-and-frisk policies, pretextual stops — in which officers use a minor traffic or equipment violations as a legal justification for pulling over someone they wish to investigate — contribute to racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Calls for change have intensified in recent years after the fatal police shootings of Philando Castile in 2016 and Daunte Wright, who was killed during a traffic stop by Brooklyn Center police in April.
The change comes as the city's department continues to face the fallout from the murder of George Floyd last year, which led to widespread calls for reforming the department and even abolishing it outright. In response, Arradondo has promised sweeping changes.
Police traffic stops have plummeted citywide since Floyd's May 2020 death, which some have attributed in part to understaffing.
In the months since Floyd's death, the department has lost scores of officers to retirement and medical leave, putting a strain on department resources and forcing the department to focus almost exclusively on responding to 911 calls and investigations.
Arradondo said in his memo that traffic enforcement "remains a key part in keeping our roadways and streets safe for those we serve." And yet, he said, prioritizing more serious traffic violations "will have minimal impact on current MPD traffic enforcement and can also help build trust with the communities we serve."
The move was met with cautious optimism by advocacy groups, who said it was a step in the right direction toward reversing age-old racial disparities.
"This is a welcome development," said Teresa Nelson, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, one of several groups that has pushed for the department to overhaul its traffic enforcement operation. At the same time, she called on the department to "go even further and expand it to all low-level violations that don't affect public safety," such as a busted muffler.
"I think there's a growing recognition in Minnesota and around the country that these kind of punitive policies are basically punishing for people for being poor," she said.
Her concerns were echoed by City Council Member Steve Fletcher, who previously pushed for a moratorium on all equipment stops
"I'm worried that it's not going to have the intended impact or the stated impact," said Fletcher, while adding, "I do think there's some ways it will help some people from the fines that come with some of these low-level stops."
Fletcher and other city officials have proposed sending unarmed civilian workers to low-risk traffic calls and other urgent, but nonemergency situations.
In announcing a change, Minneapolis follows in the footsteps of other large U.S. cities, including Portland, Ore., which earlier this summer announced that its police officers would no longer pursue expired plates, broken headlights and low-level traffic infractions, unless they were related to a pressing public safety threat.
Department officials have previously attributed the disparities to heightened police presence in crime-heavy areas, while arguing that pretextual stops are a valuable crime-fighting tool that helps get guns off the streets.
Former chief Hennepin County public defender Mary Moriarty asked the department a few years ago to turn data on the "hit rate" — or the percentage of pretextual stops that led to the recovery of a firearm. The numbers surprised her: Officers found a gun in "less than half of one percent when they searched Black motorists," she said.
She questioned whether the rule change went far enough.
"While this is a step in the right direction, if they [police] want to pull you over, they can just find a different reason," she said. "I would like them to see them ban pretextual stops, period."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.