New data released Wednesday shows that a Ramsey County policy to pull over and prosecute fewer people for minor traffic violations has had a positive effect on crime and on law enforcement's relationship with the community.
Analysis of data spanning four years and about 200,000 traffic stops by the Justice Innovation Lab shows that after the policy began in September 2021, the share of traffic stops by St. Paul police for minor vehicle violations like broken taillights or dark window tints dropped by more than 20%. While stops for such violations decreased, the share of traffic stops for speeding, driving under the influence and other crimes increased.
"This independent research shows we not only greatly reduced the unequal treatment of many in our community due to these stops, but also that law enforcement has been able to move scarce resources to more serious issues," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in a statement. "I'm grateful to all of our partners in this work, particularly all the police chiefs who have provided leadership in trying new approaches to both build community trust and improve public safety."
Police departments in St. Paul, Roseville, Maplewood and St. Anthony Village changed their policies or practices to be included in the study. Study data shows that police departments that did not change their policies reported minor changes in their traffic stops and searches.
Choi's office announced it would stop prosecuting cases for minor traffic violations in 2021, months after Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter killed Daunte Wright during a routine traffic stop. But efforts to change such policing started well before.
Akhi Johnson, a director at the Vera Institute for Justice, which works to end mass incarceration, says Choi expressed interest in initiatives to change traffic policing back in 2019. Johnson said racial disparities in who is pulled over in Ramsey County mirror disparities across the country. Black drivers were four times more likely to be pulled over in Ramsey County and nine times more likely to be searched than white drivers for minor traffic violations.
But after reviewing the data presented Wednesday, Johnson said the county's work could be a model for the rest of the nation.
"This is a policy that is truly designed to make sure that everyone feels safe, no matter your skin color, your language, what country you're from, no matter how much money you have in your pocket. It recognizes that everyone deserves to feel safe," Johnson said.
"What's unique here is the cooperation we see from the prosecutor's office, law enforcement officers, community partners … we see everyone here coming together to really model the solution that we think can work anywhere in the country."
Roseville Police Chief Erika Scheider might agree. Scheider's department stopped enforcing minor traffic violations in 2017 after community members asked for a change. The public has responded in a positive way, thanking officers for warning them about broken taillights or vehicle issues instead of citing them.
Her department has also partnered with Choi's office to send residents dozens of vouchers from the Lights On! program to help fix their broken equipment — an alternative to ticketing that the Maplewood Police Department will soon adopt.
St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry praised the policy results on Wednesday, adding that many in his department support the effort. Then-department chief Todd Axtell issued a directive for officers to prioritize dangerous traffic violations in 2021. Henry said it's too early to decide if he will create a department policy on the issue because it could stir community distrust between police departments in neighboring counties. But he hopes that other chiefs talk with their community about what people need.
"I would encourage any chief, or any leader in any community, to have conversations with their community. And that means everyone in the community, not just people that are going to echo back your beliefs to you," Henry said. "The trust has to start unilaterally, with everybody."
Henry, Choi and other leaders planned to meet and talk with residents about the changes Wednesday at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center. Choi hopes it results in conversations among other agencies about what they could do better in policing.
Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council, said that under the policy officers can focus more on serious crimes that affect all racial communities.
"We are the most policed community. We are the most criminalized community, but we also are a community that wants law enforcement," Terrill said. "I've heard our mayor say for years, 'The most livable city in America.' This puts us even more in that direction for all people."