Two Minneapolis City Council members want to remove lurking and spitting from the city’s list of criminal offenses — and, they say, help cut down on police calls and arrests that target minorities.
In Minneapolis, lurking is a misdemeanor offense that prohibits people from lying “in wait” or being “concealed with intent to commit any crime or unlawful act.” It is enforced relatively infrequently; between 2009 and 2014, Minneapolis police made 392 arrests.
But Council Members Cam Gordon and Blong Yang — and an increasingly vocal number of advocates — say it is one of several low-level offenses police use to target specific neighborhoods and racial groups. Over that six-year period, 59 percent of the people arrested for lurking were black, while 24 percent were white. Meanwhile, 69 percent of the people who called in to report lurking offenses, listed on reports as either victims or witnesses, were white. Just 12 percent were black.
Gordon attempted to get the lurking ordinance repealed in 2008, but didn’t win enough support. This time, with a largely new council and a growing public debate over racial inequalities in policing, he believes his proposal might find more support in and outside City Hall.
“There’s a sense, I think in law enforcement, even, and in the city attorney’s office, that we have other tools and can deal with these things in other ways,” Gordon said. “This is a policy decision and maybe there have been some unintended consequences [and] we have to be more careful.”
Gordon and Yang plan to introduce their ordinance sometime this spring. Not long after, the Police Department is scheduled to provide the council with something Gordon requested last year: a detailed report on who police are stopping and arresting for low-level crimes, and where those interactions are occurring.
The council members said they’ve heard from advocates and residents that police calls for crimes often spiral into bigger problems. Young people who otherwise wouldn’t have arrests on their records end up in the back of a squad car, or with a court date.
Michael McDowell, an organizer with the group Black Lives Matter, said he has firsthand experience with that kind of situation. He said police have been called to check on him and his friends when they’ve been together at one of their homes. No one was arrested, but he said the idea that the police needed to show up and ask him what he was doing was “ridiculous” — and something that likely wouldn’t have happened if he and his friends were white.
“With calls like this, you’re probably going to get a white person calling on people of color,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it’s not vice versa: people of color calling on a group of white folks they see appearing to be rowdy.”
Wintana Melekin, civic and political engagement director for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said she sees or hears about police stops for low-level offenses nearly every day. She’s been arrested for trespassing — the charge was later dropped — and said similar cases don’t do much to improve safety.
“I see it on a regular basis where people … they get stopped for spitting and then they get searched,” she said. “And either they walk away or they get arrested.”
A group of university professors who wrote to city officials on behalf of a group called the Coalition for Critical Change pointed to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union that found that black people were more likely to be arrested for a variety of crimes than white people in Minneapolis. (Black teenagers, for example, were more than 16 times more likely to be arrested for curfew violations or loitering than their white peers.)
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a University of St. Thomas law professor, said crimes like lurking “give officers the power to stop, question and harass young African-American men in the city of Minneapolis.”
A police spokesman declined to comment on the issue. He referred questions to City Attorney Susan Segal, who said her office was open to looking again at the ordinances.
“It’s good to review them and consider public safety needs against any negative or unintended consequences,” she said.