After an officer kills a Black person in the Twin Cities, police are often forced into undertaking some effort at reform. After killing Jamar Clark, Thurman Blevins, and now George Floyd, Minneapolis police were pushed to begin collecting data on the race of people injured by an officer, expedite the release of body camera footage and ban chokeholds.
But after things settle down — and even after certain policy changes are put in place — some issues don’t get better. And sometimes they get worse.
Take, for example, the St. Anthony Police Department, which saw one of its officers, Jeronimo Yanez, kill Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop in 2016.
After the killing, Yanez was fired from the department, though he was also acquitted of criminal charges brought against him by Ramsey County prosecutors. At the same time, St. Anthony initiated a series of policing reforms: overhauling the department’s policy manual, putting together a plan for fair policing, and — at the behest of residents and advocates — agreeing to collect and report data on the race of people they pull over in traffic stops.
And yet, in the years since Castile’s death, St. Anthony police have continued to pull over Black motorists at disproportionate rates compared to their white, Asian and Latino counterparts. In fact, since the department started collecting data in 2017, the share of Black people pulled over has increased each year.
A killing, and a departmental shift
On the evening of July 6, 2016, Yanez pulled over a car with Castile, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights, which the St. Anthony police department was contracted to patrol.
In a radio transmission by Yanez, he said he pulled over the car because he thought Castile fit the description of a suspect of a robbery and because a brake light was out. Reynolds streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook. By the next day, the video had been viewed over 2 million times, sparking outrage and protests throughout the country. Yanez was later arrested and charged on second-degree manslaughter and felony weapons charges and, in 2017, went on trial in Ramsey County.
Within weeks of the killing, Falcon Heights, St. Anthony and Lauderdale residents, along with local activists, began meeting and discussing changes to the St. Anthony Police Department.
But the St. Anthony police said they would do more than just listen. The city announced several initiatives for the department, including wearing body-cameras and requiring all officers complete yearly training in procedural justice and “Fair & Impartial Policing,” said St. Anthony city manager Mark Casey.
Casey said research shows that more public cooperation in creating police practices helps keep communities, and the police that serve them, safer. “The training that has been made available to our police officers in the last several years has been very well received and has greatly built our capacity, yet we cannot help but think we can do better,” said Casey, adding that the city believes there is “room to grow” with better crisis intervention training, and that police seek community-wide input.
Explaining the numbers
But the largest shift in operations impacted how the city policed motorists. Instead of viewing traffic as a place to stop people and make arrests, argued advocates, the department should be most concerned with maintaining safety.
St. Anthony police agreed and vowed to make traffic safety — instead of enforcement — a priority, with officers looking less to stop drivers in order to hand out any possible citation than to focus on stopping unsafe driving that leads to traffic fatalities, like speeding or running a stop sign. The data collected since 2017 shows evidence that the department’s efforts are working. Though moving violations stops (for speeding, distracted driving, stop light or stop sign violations and seatbelt violations) are up in recent years, vehicle violation stops (for expired registration, broken or illegal equipment) and investigative stops (for unlicensed vehicle owners, warrant or stolen vehicle hits, suspicious activity) are down.
The department also promised to be more open-minded about policing generally. “It’s the direction I’ve taken the department when I became chief,” says Jon Mangseth, who took over the department in 2016. “And, ultimately, as the result of that tragic shooting, it’s the position I took in the community.”
In addition to the focus on traffic safety, many of those who met with department leadership in the wake of Castile’s killing also asked the city to start tracking details about each traffic stop, and St. Anthony police began doing so in 2017. The data includes information on the race of drivers pulled over and the reason for the stop, and is compiled in reports released each year.
St. Anthony Village and Lauderdale, which the department also patrols, are “pass-through” cities, says Mangseth, meaning that the traffic there is largely drivers from neighboring cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as Roseville, Columbia Heights and New Brighton. According to St. Anthony police, the percentage of traffic stops that involved drivers from either St. Anthony or Lauderdale, on average, only made up 10 percent of all stops. The rest are from adjacent cities.
While St. Anthony is more than 77 percent white and Lauderdale is more than 70 percent white, the combined racial demographics of those two municipalities and the adjacent cities — Minneapolis, St. Paul, Roseville, New Brighton, Columbia Heights and Falcon Heights — is 57 percent white, 17 percent Black 11 percent Asian and 9 percent Hispanic or Latinx.
In 2017, however, 28 percent of all traffic stops conducted by St. Anthony police involved Black drivers. In 2018, that figure went up to 32 percent. And in 2019, it climbed further still, reaching 34 percent. What’s more, the disparities didn’t apply to all people of color. Asian and Latinx drivers were stopped at lower rates than they’re represented in the population of St. Anthony and its surrounding cities.
Mangseth said he doesn’t know why the numbers are “drawing out” the way they do. “I wish I had a simple, point-on response for you,” said Mangseth, and he said the police department is working to shrink the gap.
Though Mangseth said he “wants to be part of the solution,” he doesn’t think racism is the problem. He says there are many “variables and dynamics” that lead to the statistical outcomes. “I just don’t operate under the premise that the police profession has this embedded racism,” he said.
Since the 2016 killing of Castile, Mangseth says the department has carried out multiple initiatives and actively pursues goals for procedural justice, which people should also pay attention to in looking at the department. “We’re stopping a disproportionate amount of people of color,” he said. “But how do we measure things on that other side, as well?”