Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
A new ACLU report shows that arrests for low-level offenses in the city skew heavily toward blacks. Including arrests that don’t “fit any crime.”
If you plan on driving while black in Minneapolis, it might be best to do so at night when police can't make out your skin color.
Black drivers there are more than nine times more likely than whites to be arrested for driving violations like speeding and failing to use a turn signal at 2 p.m. during summer months; at 3 a.m., "when visibility is limited and officers are less likely able to identify the race of drivers before pulling them over," black drivers are only twice as likely as white drivers to be arrested.
That's according to a new American Civil Liberties Union report on gaping racial disparities in the Minneapolis Police Department's enforcement of low-level offenses. The report is a damning rejoinder to the liberal reputation of the affluent, heavily white city, which concentrates its poor residents of color into segregated neighborhoods and schools.
One revealing story contained in the report is that of a black teenager, Hamza Jeylani, who was pulled over in a car with three friends, likewise of Somali descent, on March 18, 2015. (It was, as it happens, daylight outside.) The official police reason for the stop was suspicion that the teens had stolen the car, according to the report. But Jeylani says that the driver owned the car, and had a license and registration, and that the car reported stolen was a different make and model. Whatever the case, Jeylani had a chilling interaction with the officer, which he captured on his phone.
"Plain and simple, if you fuck with me," an officer whom the ACLU identifies as Rod Webber appears to say to Jeylani, "I'm gonna break your legs before you even get a chance to run." When Jeylani asked why he was being arrested, Officer Webber responded, "Because I feel like arresting you."
Overall in Minneapolis, black people were 8.7 times more likely than whites were to be arrested for low low-level offenses like trespassing, playing music too loudly from a car (this is actually illegal), drinking in public, and disorderly conduct. The study covered 96,975 arrests made from January 1, 2012, to September 30, 2014, and only included those arrests where a low-level offense was the most serious charge. Arrests that resulted in both felony and misdemeanor charges were excluded.
Black people were over 25 times more likely to be arrested for an offense called "loitering with intent to commit a narcotics offense”—which does not actually require that narcotics be in someone's possession. "Since it doesn’t require concrete evidence, this offense gives police officers significant leeway to arrest people who may have done nothing wrong and who are just hanging out," the report states.
Black people were over five times more likely to be arrested for not having proof of car insurance, which is "particularly noteworthy since patrol officers could not possibly know whether or not drivers had proof of insurance when they pulled them over," according to the report.
The report suggests that some Minneapolis police officers may be looking for pretexts to lock black people up. The ACLU was particularly concerned that 906 arrests made during the 33 month period under examination were made for an offense called "doesn’t fit any crim[e]." The police department told the ACLU that the category reflected their computer system's limitations rather than indicating that the arrests were made without any legal basis. But the catch-all (and disturbingly titled) category makes outside scrutiny of such arrests extremely difficult.
For young people, 40 percent of low-level charges were for violating curfew, with black youth accounting for 56 percent of such charges.
Many low-level charges lodged against homeless people were for drinking in public or having an open container: "At least 40 percent of the low-level charges against people experiencing homelessness were for offenses that are inextricably related to not having a home—consuming in public, open bottle, begging/panhandling, and public urination. Arresting homeless people for these offenses is simply criminalizing poverty," the report states.
Further, the ACLU found that low-level arrests of homeless people were concentrated downtown, an indication "that police purposefully and aggressively arrest homeless people as they move into the city’s business district."
An arrest can wreak havoc on a person’s life even when it does not result in a conviction, Hennepin County District Court Judge Kevin Burke told the ACLU: Someone under arrest might miss work, get fired, and then fall behind on child support, which could lead to them being held in contempt for nonpayment. Low-level offenses can make people whose lives are already quite difficult much harder—and make them more likely to get arrested again.
"We take people—largely people of color—and we say, 'If you're drunk or sleeping on the light rail to the Mall of America, we will charge you and make a condition of your probation [that] you cannot ride the light rail," Burke told the ACLU.
The cycle is vicious and can be daunting to escape. Outstanding low-level warrants, often for missing a court appearance or failing to pay a fine, were the third most common low-level charge overall.
The report, undertaken by the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project and the ACLU of Minnesota, praises Mayor Betsy Hodges and Chief Janeé Harteau for recognizing that a problem exists, but says that reforms must go deeper.
The ACLU recommends that police ensure that officers are "not reward[ed] … based on the number of stops and low-level arrests they make," that officers be barred from requesting to conduct searches for which there is no legal basis, that an "empowered civilian review body" with the ability to discipline officers be created, and that other methods aside from warrants be used to ensure that people show up to court and pay fines for low-level offenses. More basically, they recommend that some of these offenses—like breaking youth curfews, lurking, spitting, and "loitering with intent to commit a narcotics offense”—should simply be repealed so that no one is ever arrested for them again.
On Thursday, Hodges called the "data … another reminder of the work that we have in front of us, the work that I am committed to doing," in a statement released by her office. "It comes at a fortuitous time as we are focused on criminal justice reform, particularly when it comes to youth. The more information we have, the better."
The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Hodges said she is “committed to closing every harmful gap—safety, health, education, income, housing, and employment—where outcomes are worse for people of color than white people."
Racial disparities are a huge problem in the American criminal justice system, which arrests and incarcerates black men at extraordinarily high rates. But focusing on disparities also has pitfalls: The creation of mandatory minimum sentences, for example, was in part a result of attempting to make sentencing more consistent.
The political scientist Marie Gottschalk commented on the perils of focusing on disparate impact at the expense of recognizing the criminal justice system's general severity:
[Doing so] often obscures the fact that the incarceration rates for other groups in the United States, including whites and Latinos, is also comparatively very high, just not astronomically high as in the case of blacks. The South actually has some of the nation’s lowest racial disparities when it comes to black-white imprisonment—much lower than a state like Minnesota. Blacks in Minnesota are about 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, giving Minnesota the country’s highest black-white disparity in imprisonment. But Minnesota also has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country. So overall, African Americans are less likely to be sent to prison in Minnesota than in the South, which is a more equal opportunity incarcerator.
The Southern criminal justice system is indeed a disaster. But the carceral state is a defining feature of American life, a problem that even liberal Minneapolis must confront.