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Why the repeal of Minneapolis’ lurking and spitting laws succeeded this time

Cam Gordon said the changed result flowed from the changed makeup of the council and a different perception of the problem.

The Minneapolis City Council repealed the crime of lurking on a 12-1 vote.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Eight years ago Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon was on the losing side of an attempt to repeal the crime of lurking. Friday an ordinance he co-sponsored with Council Member Blong Yang succeeded on a 12-1 vote.

What happened in seven years to change the math? Gordon said the changed result flowed from the changed makeup of the council — seven of the council members who voted yes Friday weren’t on the council in 2007 — and a different perception of the problem.

In 2007, Gordon said, he framed the issue as the criminalization of poverty because the lurking law was used heavily against the homeless. This year it was seen as an equity issue because the enforcement of lurking — and the other repealed ordinance against public spitting — disproportionately impacted people of color.

Pushing for the repeal of both ordinances was the ACLU of Minnesota, the NAACP, Black Lives Matter and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. Opposing were the Minneapolis police union, the Downtown Council and the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Arrest-records study

A study of arrest records by the ACLU of Minnesota showed blacks were 8.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for a low-level offense. Native Americans were 8.6 times more likely to be arrested for these crimes, defined in the report as those that come with a fine of less than $3,000 or jail time of less than a year.

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The city’s own numbers show that over the most recent five-year period, 65 percent of the 392 people arrested for lurking were black. There were only 89 lurking arrests in 2014 and one for spitting. But because they are crimes, they can follow those convicted and affect how they qualify for jobs, housing and other necessities of living. Activists for repeal have called these “collateral consequences.”

While there may be other crimes that should be examined, Yang said he found the crimes of spitting and lurking especially troubling.

“I’m a law-and-order guy, and I openly support our police department,” Yang said. “I would not pursue this change if I thought it made our city any less safe.” Yang, an attorney, said he doubted the constitutionality of the lurking ordinance which required government to determine the intent of a person since it targeted those who lurk “with intent to commit any crime or unlawful act.”

“How can a police officer look inside a person’s mind and know whether such intent exists?” he asked. Because of the inequitable enforcement, Yang said he thought repealing both would “make us a better city.”

‘A critical message’

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who said she voted to repeal the lurking law in 2007, said it is not an effective criminal justice tool and is one that is used “incredibly infrequently.” Still, many fear that repealing any crime will be defined as being soft on crime. Glidden said the message that will be sent is a willingness to rebuild public trust by looking at the criminal code and how it is applied. “I think that’s a critical message and I think that’s the message that is being sent with these repeals.”

Council President Barbara Johnson
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Council President Barbara Johnson

Council President Barbara Johnson was the sole no vote on both ordinances. She said while both are rarely used, they can be valuable tools for police. Johnson, who represents part of North Minneapolis, said her ward has double the violent crime rate of other wards in the city. She also she she feared that other tools such as crimes of disorderly conduct or nighttime curfews might be next for repeal.

She drew some vocal objections from the pro-repeal audience by saying she objected to recent statements — including by Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds  that Minneapolis is on the road to being the next Ferguson or Baltimore.

“I want to encourage people to please tone down the rhetoric on this issue,” Johnson said. “I think it is really unhelpful to talk about Minneapolis as  potentially being the next Ferguson. It’s irresponsible and inflammatory….”

Called ‘bare minimum’

At a Thursday press conference, Levy-Pounds said repealing the two ordinances should be the “bare minimum” of what the city should do to address inequities in policing.

“The city has a reputation for being the most-progressive, most-livable city in the country,” she said. “But that should not just be for white people in Minneapolis.” Racial inequities in criminal justice, education, health and income are setting the city up for failure, she said.

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“The same ingredients” that led to uprisings in other cities exist in Minneapolis, Levy-Pounds said. She and others at the press conference called for further reforms, including looking at low-level drug crimes and the curfew that also fall disproportionately at people of color. They also endorsed a stronger civilian police review board and changes in how police officers are evaluated that do not reward numbers of arrests.

“There’s not one solution because there’s not one cause,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director for the state ACLU.

In a statement released after the City Hall press conference, Police Chief Janee Harteau said she will continue to have “open and candid conversations on race and policing on the local level,” but added that the issue is a national one.

“As a board member of the Police Executive Research Forum, I am currently with other major city Chiefs leading the discussion. Yesterday we were given the report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” her statement said. “After walking through the recommendations, we discussed what role each of us will play and how we can all move forward as individual departments, and as a nation of law enforcement officers. That discussion continues today with the nation’s top cops.”

Amendment attempt fails

Before the council voted Friday to repeal the spitting ordinance, Council Member Lisa Goodman offered an amendment to retain the offense with updated language but to make it a petty misdemeanor rather than a crime — enforced by a ticket and a $50 fine rather than arrest. She said she thought repeal would send the message that spitting was acceptable.

“I think we need to say something a little louder than ‘Please don’t spit on the street.’ ” Goodman said. The amendment failed on a voice vote.

Council Member Cam Gordon
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Council Member Cam Gordon

Later, however, Council Member Andrew Johnson said he hoped residents wouldn’t think the council was endorsing spitting in public.

“I’m happy to be repealing this today,” he said. “But don’t spit, please don’t spit, it’s gross. And please don’t swear loudly in public. There’s a lot of bad things. Please stop at crosswalks — that’s obviously the law.”

A statement released Friday by the Downtown Council, which opposed the repeal, said the group would be watching to see what other steps are taken; the way to proceed, it said, is to take a comprehensive look at how the justice system can be made fairer while still maintaining safety.

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“Contrary to the assertions of proponents, eliminating laws defining an expected level of conduct that help insure public safety throughout Minneapolis will not solve the deeply rooted challenges of bias in our criminal justice system. Instead, we may find that the ripple effects from such changes simply undermine the security of individuals who live, work and visit here,” the statement said.

Mayor Betsy Hodges has said she will sign both ordinances. “These two ordinances are antiquated, unnecessary, and unfairly affect people of color in our community,” she said. “It’s about time we got them off the books.”