Minneapolis City Council members are considering whether to ask police to temporarily halt certain traffic stops in response to activists’ concerns that they overwhelmingly target minorities, with little to show for it.
But police leaders, who say such enforcement is integral to removing drugs and guns from the streets, pushed back at the idea on Wednesday, arguing against a decision until more research was done.
Council Member Steve Fletcher said that he saw a proposed moratorium on stops for equipment violations, like a broken taillight or headlight, as a way to ease the racial disparities in rates of traffic stops, but that “we’re not ready to do that today — we need to do a deeper dive.”
“If my math is right, we did 40,000 stops to get 92 guns,” Fletcher said, referencing 2018 police statistics released at a meeting of the council’s public safety committee. “If we do 400 traffic stops, we have one gun and we have 399 people who trust the police a little less.”
It’s unclear how the proposed changes would play out. No timeline has been set for a decision.
The proposal came out of a community forum last month on bias in policing, when speaker after speaker, including a retired Washington, D.C., cop, aired their frustrations with what they saw as years of harassment and discrimination at the hands of police. The testimonials spilled into Wednesday’s meeting.
Elizer Darris, a field director with the state’s ACLU chapter, said that he had grown increasingly frustrated after being pulled over eight times in two years.
“I understand how to conduct myself during all of these stops: I turn off my lights, I put my hands on the steering wheel, and I answer all of their questions, ‘Yes, sir, no, sir,’ ” he said. “And I found myself on my last stop losing my composure a little bit.”
Other speakers argued that the move would only harm residents in poorer neighborhoods, where gun violence is a daily fact of life.
Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins said that she was torn on the matter, pointing out that while some of her ward’s residents and business owners were “begging” for more traffic enforcement, she also understood the harm that over-policing had caused in certain neighborhoods.
“These traffic stops are very deeply concerning, but the issues of people being murdered in our community are even more so concerning for me,” she said.
A report released last fall by the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office found that more than half of motorists stopped citywide for equipment violations were black, even though blacks make up only about a fifth of the city’s population. The disparity was particularly glaring in the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of north Minneapolis, where the study found that 80 percent of drivers pulled over were black, compared with 12 percent who were white.
Yet, traffic enforcement has dropped by nearly 70 percent over the past decade — from roughly 92,400 in 2010 to 29,150 in 2017 — as the department moved away from more aggressive policing in an effort to repair relations with the community, police Chief Medaria Arradondo told the committee.
“There is a historical trauma that is associated with traffic stops in our city, I absolutely understand that,” he said in an interview, but warned that council members first consider the ramifications of ending the practice.
Among the policy recommendations made by the study’s authors was discouraging officers from pulling over vehicles for an equipment violation unless there is an immediate threat to public safety and ending the practice of searching vehicles “solely based on smelling marijuana.”
Last year, the department pulled over 7,186 vehicles for equipment violations, or 18 percent of all traffic stops. Of that number, nearly three-quarters of motorists were released without being cited; just fewer than 4 percent were booked into jail. The data show that nearly 40 percent of vehicle searches during equipment-related stops were performed by the department’s elite Gang Interdiction Team, which recovered more guns than any other unit, but stopped black drivers 82 percent of the time.
Chief Hennepin County public defender Mary Moriarty said that her office requested department data showing how often police stops lead to recovery of a gun or drugs. Without such data, it was difficult to make conclusions about the strategy’s effectiveness in reducing crime, she said.
“It also subjects poor people to much more scrutiny because they may not be able to afford fixing equipment problems to their cars,” said Moriarty.
Moriarty said that she sympathized with crime-weary residents who clamored for more aggressive policing to combat rising gun violence, but that “it’s not up to the community to decide if they should surrender other people’s constitutional rights.”
Arradondo said that while he was willing to listen to critics’ concerns, it would be a “dereliction of his duty as chief” if he didn’t use every tool at his disposal to combat risky driving behaviors and gun violence, which are generally concentrated in impoverished, racially segregated neighborhoods.
“I want a moratorium on our shootings, I want a moratorium on the violence within our communities,” said Arradondo, the city’s first African-American chief. “It’s easier to try to discuss and debate the outcome — it’s much more difficult to have those conversations and ask why did we get to the outcome,” he said.