The debate over police reform in Minneapolis can sometimes seem scattershot. One day it’s about body cams, the next, it’s if (and when) police should have guns. More recently, it was whether, in some far-off, distant future, police will continue to even be a thing.
But the creation of the Minneapolis Police Department’s new data dashboard has highlighted one of the more fundamental issues when it comes to policing and equity in Minneapolis: the racial discrepancy that exists in low-level arrests. Though black people — including African Americans and those of East African descent — make up 18 percent of the city’s population, they account for 40 percent of police stops.
When Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and his deputy chief, Art Knight, were recently asked about those low-level arrests and the root causes behind those statistics, what they had to say was surprising — largely because the reality they described wasn’t all that different from what you often hear from police-reform advocates.
Take this from Knight, who is in charge of the department’s procedural justice work: “You over-police in these neighborhoods, so you might be doing low-level drug offenses, and people ask who uses more drugs, white kids or black kids,” he said. “It’s about the same. But how come black kids are eight times more likely to be arrested? Because that’s where you’re putting the resources at. You have just as many white kids in the suburbs using drugs, doing other offenses, but you’re not stopping them every time.”
Knight was referencing a 2015 ACLU report that showed that black people in Minneapolis are 8.7 times more likely to be arrested for a low-level offense than white people. His argument was that police focus their resources on poor neighborhoods because that’s where the violent crime is, but in the process, they also end up arresting people for minor offenses.
When asked whether the department could focus on violent crime without racking up stops and arrests for minor offenses, Knight told a story about when he was a lieutenant in the Fourth Precinct. He said that after an uptick in shootings in a certain part of the neighborhood, he directed his officers to focus their enforcement efforts there. “I’m stopping what I can,” he said. “Any violation, that gives me a reason to stop to look for handguns.”
And while the officers’ intent was to find illegal guns and criminal suspects, they would also end up arresting people for minor offenses, like driving on a suspended license. “You can’t just send an officer out there and tell him not to issue a ticket when he sees the law being broken,” he said.
Still, the question of how much police can or should use their own discretion in terms of enforcement is hotly debated. In response to what Knight said about the root causes behind the statistics, Teresa Nelson, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU, wrote in an email: “I think he’s exactly right, that black kids are being stopped a lot more than white kids and they need to disrupt that narrative. Yes, put resources in those communities with violent crime, but don’t allocate those resources to zero-tolerance low-level enforcement. It only serves to destabilize communities and destroys any hope of building a relationship of trust with the people you serve.”
That’s the argument made by Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign organized by activists associated with Black Lives Matter. In their call to “End Broken Windows Policing,” they make a direct link between aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses in communities of color, and police killings, pointing out that in 2014, “police killed at least 287 people who were involved in minor offenses and harmless activities like sleeping in parks, possessing drugs, looking ‘suspicious’ or having a mental health crisis.”
Nelson’s view is that police should immediately change how they approach petty crime in these neighborhoods by de-prioritizing low-level offenses. “That’s what’s happening for white people and people living in other neighborhoods simply by virtue of the allocation of police resources into high-crime neighborhoods,” she wrote.
The last push to address policing and low-level crimes came in 2015 when then-NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds led a campaign to repeal Minneapolis’ ordinances against spitting and lurking, low-level offenses that disproportionately affected black people.
In recent years, the Minneapolis police department has undergone a series of reforms, including starting a body cam program and requiring all officers and staff to undergo training in implicit bias, a class whose curriculum Knight helped design in collaboration with The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, an Obama era initiative.
Nelson noted that the department has also made some progress in creating pre-arrest diversion programs for youth and homeless. Still, the lack of social services for those vulnerable populations has made progress difficult, and she fears that the political winds are shifting. “The lack of services coupled with the tremendous pressure to make the downtown area a place where white suburbanites feel comfortable means that the city is likely to fall back on the enforcement model of arrests, geographical exclusions for people arrested in downtown, and then more arrests.”
Arradondo took a broader view, speaking passionately — as he has before — about the historic role of police as instruments oppression, how that historic trauma affects how police are currently viewed in the black community. But he also sees the question of racial discrepancies in arrests as part of a set of larger socio-economic problems that Minneapolis needs to address. “If there was never another crime committed this year in the city of Minneapolis, it would absolutely do nothing to impact the unemployment disparities, housing disparities, homelessness, mental health, lack of adequate mental health care,” he said. “But yet we are the most visible arm of government to go out there and try to deal with these things.”
Arradondo believes that for now, making the data on police stops public via the dashboard is a step in the right direction. “If we hold onto that information, that just creates mistrust,” he said. “That is something that has at least started the conversation.”
But more dialogue won’t be enough for everyone. Jason Sole, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, argued that despite the chief says, certain officers will still take an aggressive approach on the street. “They can’t turn it off,” he said. “Once they have their gun and their tasers on, and they’re adrenaline is pumping, they just can’t stop brutalizing us.”
Longtime community activist Mel Reeves was more philosophical. While he personally likes Arradondo, he said, he takes issue with the institution of policing itself, which he believes is fundamentally about keeping class structures in place, and offered a blunt response the question of over-policing of black neighborhoods. “It’s not rocket science,” he said, “just stop.”