Do Minneapolis police unfairly target people of color, or don’t they?
Your answer to that question these days may say something about your politics, but getting to the actual truth behind it is complicated.
But thanks to newly available data on stops, citations and other actions taken by Minneapolis police, broken down by race, it’s possible to at least put some numbers behind the public debate about race and policing. And those numbers are not available thanks to a data request by a media organization or a lawsuit — they’re part of a new dashboard that is being published by the Minneapolis Police Department itself, in an effort to improve transparency and accountability to the public.
So what can — and can’t — the data tell us about the way police do their jobs in Minneapolis?
What we can learn
The dashboard includes the race and gender of people stopped, whether or not they were searched, the nature of the stop and whether anyone was cited or booked, among other things, and can be broken down by neighborhood or police precinct. It is updated daily.
Between Oct. 31, 2016 and Oct. 12 of this year, the Minneapolis Police Department recorded 50,950 stops in the database, an average of 147 per day.
Black people, including African American and people of East African descent, make up 18 percent of the population in Minneapolis and 40 percent of the stops included in MPD’s dashboard. When it comes to investigative stops, which theoretically require a reasonable suspicion of misconduct, black people were stopped more than twice as often as whites. In instances where a person was searched, 62 percent were black. In vehicle searches, 63 percent of people whose cars were searched were black. Forty-four percent of those stopped for moving violations and 53 percent of those stopped for equipment violations were black. Fifty-one percent of people on the receiving end of citations were black, and 57 percent of people booked as part of an arrest were black.
American Indians, just over 1 percent of Minneapolis’ population, account for 4 percent of the interactions in the Minneapolis Police Department’s dashboard. American Indians make up 9 percent of people searched, 5 percent of people whose vehicles are searched and 10 percent of investigative stops. The share of people stopped for moving and equipment violations who are listed as American Indian are roughly proportional to the size of the American Indian population, at under 2 percent. American Indians made up 3 percent of people issued citations and 12 percent of those booked.
White people, who account for about 60 percent of Minneapolis’ population, make up 27 percent of all police interactions in the database, 19 percent of persons searches 16 percent of people whose vehicles are searched. White people accounted for 30 percent of those stopped for equipment violations and 39 percent of those stopped for moving violations.They received 29 percent of citations and made up 20 percent of bookings.
The database includes data for Latinos, Asians, East Africans as a group distinct from African Americans, people considered other races and interactions with people for whom race is not recorded. The share of interactions in these groups were closer to proportional to the size of the populations they represent in Minneapolis.
What we can’t learn
So does that mean the Minneapolis police are engaging in widespread racial discrimination? Not necessarily. What looks like racial profiling can also be rooted in other socioeconomic factors that have their own complicated relationship with race, said Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
“At least one study in Texas suggests that stops tend to be concentrated on older model vehicles that are more likely to have problems with them,” he said. That would suggest traffic stops are connected to poverty, which in the United States, is highly correlated with race.
“Does the data show racial profiling or does it show a systematic and fundamental problem in society that relates poverty and race? It might show both.”
There’s also the matter that in many cases — about one in five of all interactions in the database, to be exact — the race of the person stopped isn’t listed. Knowing the race of the people involved in those cases could either exacerbate or mitigate any racial disparities.
Males were involved in 62 percent of instances in the database, while females were involved in 23 percent of instances and gender nonconforming people were involved in 0.2 percent of cases. In 15 percent of cases, the gender of the person stopped was listed as unknown.
A good start
After two high-profile officer-involved shootings in Minneapolis in three years, the first in 2015 resulting in the death of Jamar Clark and the second in July that killed Justine Damond, and the resignation of Police Chief Janeé Harteau, police reform has been a big part of the debate in city council and mayoral races this fall.
In a video on the site, new Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo says the police stop dashboard is part of ongoing transparency efforts (The Minneapolis Police Department did not make anyone available for comment for this story by deadline).
“I think future discussions will be a little bit deeper into so what is the data telling us in terms of our policing,” Arradondo said in the video.
With tensions between police departments and citizens running high, sharing data on police stops is a good sign for policing in Minneapolis, Stoughton said.
“This is hugely important for having an informed public discourse about what policing is and what it should be in a particular community,” he said. “You can’t have that conversation or at least you can’t have an informed conversation without having a bird's-eye view (of) what policing looks like in a community.”
But unless the department is also using the data to inform the way it polices, it may not lead to long-term change in the department that improve policing and bolster public trust, he added.
Having the dashboard up and running is a good start, Stoughton said. For a long time, “policing took the position that the agency and officers were best in the position to do their jobs when not hampered by excessive amounts of public attention,” he said. “That’s starting to change and that’s a really good thing because you can’t do policing effectively without public support and you can’t get public support unless you are either willing to share accurate information about policing or you can rely on the public’s inaccurate understanding of policing.”