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Minneapolis police stop and search a disproportionate rate of Black and East African drivers and their vehicles during routine traffic stops compared with other races.

The city is predominantly white, yet Black and East African drivers accounted for 78% of police searches that started as stops for moving or equipment violations from June 2019 through May 2020, according to Minneapolis police data. Whites made up 12% of searches during the same types of stops in that time frame.

For Black and East African drivers, 26% of searches resulted in arrest, compared with 41% of whites, according to the data.

“The numbers speak to the volume of Black and brown drivers that are being harassed by police,” said Hennepin County Public Defender Jay Wong.

After the police killing of George Floyd, Wong compiled and analyzed one year of traffic data and race in Minneapolis. The goal, he said, is to quantify a metric of racial inequality in Minneapolis policing, which his office has witnessed anecdotally for years, and share the findings with others in the Twin Cities criminal justice system in hopes of sparking changes. The Star Tribune verified his findings.

“Of course they feel racially profiled, and many of them are angry about that,” Wong said. “Some clients even feel targeted by specific officers. They know the officers’ names because they get stopped by them over and over.”

Minneapolis police Cmdr. Charlie Adams said the city should dig deeper into what is driving these disparate rates.

“Let’s do a study, let’s figure out why that’s occurring,” he said.

The city is working on such a study with the nonprofit Center for Equity in Policing, said Mychal Vlatkovich, a spokesman for Mayor Jacob Frey. Vlatkovich said Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo have reviewed preliminary findings and asked the researchers for new policy recommendations.

Traffic stops a focal point

Throughout the country, traffic stops have become a focal point in debates over racially biased policing. Researchers at Stanford University’s Open Policing Project estimate police stop 50,000 drivers in the United States on a typical day, making it one of the most common interactions between law enforcement and the public.

Stanford researchers found police across the country pull over and search Black and Hispanic drivers at higher rates than whites. Yet the “hit rate” — the frequency of the search yielding contraband — is similar for Black and white drivers and lower for Hispanic ones. The Stanford study also found police are less likely to pull over people of color after sunset, when it’s more difficult to see the race of the driver.

In Minneapolis, police found guns or drugs at a marginally higher rate for white drivers compared with Black ones, according to a 2017-2018 hit-rate analysis by the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office.

In July 2016, St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile after pulling him over on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights. Yanez claimed to stop Castile for a broken taillight. But moments before the stop, Yanez reported over the radio that Castile resembled the suspect of a recent robbery in the area, specifically citing his “wide-set nose.” There is no evidence linking Castile to the robbery. His mother later told reporters that the stretch of Larpenteur is well known to people of color, and they frequently go out of their way to avoid being stopped. Castile was stopped by police 44 times by the time he turned 30 years old.

These “pretext stops” — stops in which an officer uses a minor traffic offense as an opening to investigate a driver for contraband or other crimes — contribute to the higher rate of searches among drivers of color in Minneapolis, said Mary Moriarty, chief public defender in Hennepin County. Even if drivers are ultimately released without a citation, said Moriarty, “there are dramatic consequences in terms of building trusting relationships with the community and putting a Black driver through this experience.”

Moriarty said Minneapolis should embrace this moment of introspection of its police force to re-examine what traffic enforcement should look like. She said this should include ending pretext stops and consent search — in which drivers may consent to a search out of pressure, even if they’re legally allowed to say no. “My goal is to prevent the next Philando Castile,” Moriarty said.

Since the killing of Floyd, Minneapolis police have dramatically slowed down traffic enforcement. Total stops were down about 50% in June and nearly 60% in July compared with last year.

Solutions elusive

The disparate Minneapolis data are troubling and raise larger questions about how police treat people of color in other interactions — including the aggression on display in the arrest leading to Floyd’s death — said City Council Member Steve Fletcher, vice chairman of the Committee on Public Safety.

The disparities have also complicated the debate over how to police dangerous driving. After Floyd’s death, the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations for safer streets, passed a resolution asking the city to defund traffic enforcement, citing concerns over racial profiling.

Fletcher said he took heat from police and some community members earlier this year after blocking Minneapolis police from applying for a grant that would have funded 10 more traffic officers. “They hadn’t given us any answers on this question of racial disparities, and I didn’t feel comfortable funding more traffic enforcement,” he said.

Researchers for the Open Policing Project analyzed the impact of recreational drug legalization on traffic stops in Colorado and Washington. They saw precipitous drops in overall searches in both states. However, they also concluded that the racial disparities persisted in the reduced number of overall stops.

Some public officials in Minneapolis have lauded a program called Lights On! for its potential to ease racial disparities in traffic stops. The initiative instructs police officers to give drivers coupons to pay for repairs to a broken taillight, rather than a ticket. With funding from a Minneapolis nonprofit, Lights On! started two years ago as a means to prevent events like the killing of Castile. In January, Minneapolis police leadership issued a new policy that says “all MPD employees conducting motor vehicle stops for equipment violations shall issue a Lights On! Coupon in Lieu of traffic citations, when available and applicable.”

Vouchers to white drivers

Over the past year, however, police have issued white drivers the vouchers at a rate three times higher than Black and East African ones in equipment stops, creating another disparity, according to Minneapolis police data.

Adams said he’s suspended Lights On!, along with other community engagement programs, to limit personal contact during the pandemic. He said the purpose of the program is to create more positive interactions between police and the public, and he disputed the notion that officers are intentionally giving white drivers the voucher more than Black ones.

“Not everything’s about race,” he said. “I’ve been Black for 58 years and I’m an expert when it comes to that. If I felt there were things going on where people of color weren’t getting it, I would address that.”

Fletcher said he believes Lights On! is on its face ineffective, regardless of how it’s used. Since it does not stop a police officer from pulling over and interacting with the driver, he said, it would not have made a difference in the Castile killing.

“It’s a reform that doesn’t solve the problem,” said Fletcher.

Staff writer Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.