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

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The Minneapolis City Council repealed the crime of lurking on a 12-1 vote.

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 This year it was seen as an equity issue because the enforcement of lurking — and the other repealed ordinance against public spitting — disproportionately impacted people of color.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.

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.

“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.

“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.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/05/2015 - 05:41 pm.

    Day Must Have Become Night

    Conservatives are always talking about “limited government”, and the government that governs least governs best. So how is it that conservative political forces in MPLS are advocating such micro management? Not everything can be legislated, and i thought conservatives understood that. But then again, hypocrisy is not limited to conservatives or progressives.

  2. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 06/06/2015 - 07:35 am.

    They meant…

    that they don’t want government in their businesses. They have no objection to intrusive involvement in other’s personal lives. Especially true of persons born of poverty or color. Barbara Johnson’s comments are especially telling. All in all, still not enough change to warrant venturing into Minneapolis.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 06/08/2015 - 08:44 pm.

      “venturing into Minneapolis?”

      Dude…it’s not Baghdad. I do it pretty much every day and manage to get back home unscathed.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/06/2015 - 10:32 am.

    the slippery slope

    Before Minneapolis officials go on to repeal a lot of other low-level criminal ordinances because they disparately impact a certain young, black, male population, we should keep in mind the difference between de-criminalizing a behavior and reforming enforcement tactics. There are ways to avoid unequal treatment of a population that do not involve the slippery slope of having a whole bunch of today’s low-level crimes become legal.

    The groups who are pressuring our City Council to eliminate from the books all low-level crimes that seem to impact young men of color more than young white men are going after more than the livability crimes of spitting and lurking. They want driving without a license to be legal, and driving without insurance, and being a teen outside after curfew, and public consumption of alcohol (public urination?), and low-level drug crimes, etc. The logic? the disparate impact factor. Nothing is said–except by the police, CM Barbara Johnson, the Downtown Council and the Chamber of Commerce–about livability in Minneapolis. And about actual crimes we don’t want to have.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/06/2015 - 05:01 pm.

      The tip of an iceberg, perhaps ??

      Which crimes, EXACTLY, PRECISELY, are in the fully expounded list of “low level crimes”, anyway ??

      I’d like to know what else we’re going to ignore as acceptable public behavior.

    • Submitted by Helen Hunter on 09/04/2016 - 03:28 pm.

      Show us your evidence, please

      What evidence do you have that “The groups who are pressuring our City Council to eliminate from our books all low-level crimes that seem to impact young men of color more than young white men……….want driving without a license to be legal…[and the rest of your list]”?
      Your use of the word “seem” intrigues me, when the Council had the evidence of arrest statistics showing large racial disparities.
      I think spitting on the street or grass is disgusting, but I’ve never seen that Black or other men who aren’t white, do it oftener than white men. I didn’t know it was against the law in Minneapolis, where I lived for many years, before reading this. I’ll have to look up whether it’s illegal in St Paul, where I live now.

  4. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 06/06/2015 - 12:52 pm.

    CM Barbara Johnson has a broad support base and issues like this don’t seem to hurt her much among voters, real voters in her ward.

    Could this lone no vote hurt her more than this sort of thing has in the past?

  5. Submitted by Bob Quarrels on 06/06/2015 - 01:33 pm.

    Legalizing lurking and spitting?

    Is the notion that Kenwood and Linden Hills lurkers and sidewalk spitters are getting off scot-free? Then the police should be confronted. Otherwise, it’s not racist or classist to maintain certain standards of public behavior.

    Lisa Goodman’s compromise was smart. It’s unfortunate the rest of the council was too busy grandstanding to consider it.

  6. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 06/07/2015 - 09:09 am.

    Define your terms; ’twas originally bad legislation indeed

    I really have no right to comment on this issue coming from a city that once upon a time stripped out loitering on main street by one former mayor or was it ‘by committee’ some time ago…. by removing public benches as a form of undesirable “loitering”?

    So.I do question the definition of the term “lurking” and rightfully wisely revoking its power, oh yes.

    Spitting is more easy to visualize…like ever seen a lawyer outside a federal building spitting before entering the grand edifice? Certainly “lurking” defines those who take a smoke or wait for a client to initiate a trial whatever?

    Homeland security types probably are engaged in “lurking” at times…part of the job?

    Lurking and spitting; loitering too, are arbitrary in their definitions and certainly not clearly, legally enforceable and rightfully should be abolished for lack of clear definition?

    A smart lawyer would certainly agree? Find one any day lurking, loitering or spitting outside the local courthouse?

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 06/08/2015 - 07:03 am.


      Behaviors that have fuzzy edges to their definitions are easy to abuse, and thus rife with opportunity to be “opportunistically applied” and therefore in danger of the kinds of racial disparities in enforcement we’ve heard about.

      If there is going to be a discussion about the elimination of other “low level” offenses, then the discussion needs to include a clear-eyed assessment of how clearcut the definition and description of each offense actually is.

      At minimum, there should be a clearly-defined “bright line” around what constitutes what IS the offense v.s. what is not. If no such “bright line” exists, then there can be legitimate discussion about the possibility of eliminating it in order to eliminate the possibility of racial/economic disparity in enforcement.

  7. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 06/08/2015 - 06:58 am.

    If spitting is so bad…

    Why aren’t the cops arresting scores of people in front of Target Center at country concerts like Kenny Chesney. All those dudes in cowboy hats chewing tobacco. What could be more gross? I bet more spitting goes on before one of those concerts than the whole rest of the city put together.

    But if you are going to outlaw things because they are gross there is a long list. Decriminalizing and endorsing are two different things by the way. And up on the tip of the iceberg should we include passing gas and blowing out your runny nose when shoveling your driveway? Those are gross; shouldn’t they be crimes too? Really shouldn’t anyone who’s manners offend someone be put in jail?

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/08/2015 - 01:39 pm.

    License to harass

    Most of these types of laws remain in the books as licenses for police to harass certain people. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be anything to deter such crass behavior for the benefit of the community. It’s not just about manners, but public health and public property maintenance. Still, if there was ever a “low level crime” I wish was enforced, it would be discarding cigarette butts. If spit on the sidewalk is a problem, cigarette litter is thousands of times greater (estimates in the BILLIONS of pounds discarded as litter annually). And I can’t even find a single instance where spit resulted in a wildfire.

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