Gov. Tim Walz this month has been promoting the work of the State Patrol and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which he directed to intervene in the Twin Cities to address crime during a violent period. The publicity comes as Republicans attack the governor on his handling of crime during a competitive campaign.
Walz and state officials on Thursday showed off a table full of seized guns meant to illustrate the success of their policing. That policing heavily featured a key tactic: traffic stops.
“Over the last several weeks alone we’ve made over 2,000 targeted traffic stops,” Walz told reporters at the BCA headquarters in St. Paul.
That emphasis comes one year after former police officer Kim Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, which led to fierce debate at the Legislature over whether to limit when cops can pull someone over.
While the governor said State Patrol traffic stops have been fruitful, he also said troopers aren’t after minor infractions for things like outdated car tabs that some criticize as “pretextual” stops for police to search a person. Walz said troopers have been focused on traffic violations they deem a threat to public safety.
In a written statement Friday, State Patrol spokesperson Lt. Gordon Shank acknowledged there were some stops for equipment violations but said the patrol’s “primary focus” has been on speeding, seatbelt compliance, impairment and distracted driving.
“These driving behaviors are the primary reason people are seriously injured or killed on our roadways,” Shank wrote.
The State Patrol has deployed extra troopers this summer in high crime areas to crack down on street racing and other crimes. The initiative has focused on Minneapolis. The patrol has also been running a HEAT program — Highway Enforcement for Aggressive Traffic — targeting certain highway corridors to limit speeding.
The patrol says it made 1,459 traffic stops across the metro the weekend of July 9, recovering six guns and making 45 DWI arrests.
Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said last weekend the patrol deployed 20 state troopers and aviation resources to Minneapolis. They made more than 600 traffic stops, issued 515 citations – including 20 for intoxicated driving – and arrested 19 people for other offenses.
Certain types of traffic stops drew heavy criticism after Potter killed Wright. (She was convicted of first- and second-degree manslaughter in the case.) Many Democrats and civil rights organizations said police disproportionately pull over Black people and other people of color for small infractions as a pretext to look for other crimes. Wright was pulled over for expired tabs. Police then found he had a gross misdemeanor warrant.
Some DFLers in the Minnesota House in 2021 proposed ending traffic stops for a handful of vehicle infractions such as hanging objects from a rearview mirror, driving with a broken tail light or having expired car tabs. Walz supported the idea. And in 2021 Minneapolis announced it would end traffic stops for some infractions.
But Republicans at the Legislature pushed back on the idea of limiting traffic stops and eventually stopped the DFL bill from becoming state law. They argued, in part, that all traffic stops are key to confiscating illegally possessed guns or finding evidence of more serious crimes. Limiting traffic stops could hamstring police, the GOP argued.
Amid that debate, DPS released broad numbers for guns they’ve seized in all traffic stops in recent years. The patrol made 1.18 million traffic stops between 2018 and late June of 2021, resulting in 6,217 arrests of people with active warrants and the confiscation of 932 firearms.
Republican candidate for governor Scott Jensen has made addressing crime a key plank of his campaign, painting Walz as weak on the issue and not supportive of cops.
So, are Walz and Harrington reversing or walking back their views on traffic stops?
They contend they are not.
Harrington said patrol stops are “directed at traffic safety.”
“They’re looking at offenses against traffic law that impact crashes,” he said. That includes distracted driving or speeding, Harrington said. A news release last week also said one target of troopers focusing on West Metro highways was people driving without a seatbelt.
Harrington said when troopers pull someone over who is driving “120 in a 60,” that person often isn’t abiding by other laws, “like being a felon in possession of a firearm.”
“In addition to the primary reason for making the traffic stop, which is traffic safety, we are getting collateral offense — arrest warrants, drugs and weapons that are coming out of those traffic stops,” Harrington said.
Walz and Harrington were asked if the patrol would find more guns or make more serious arrests if they pulled over people for minor infractions. Harrington said the patrol’s tradition is to focus on traffic safety issues, and said he told the Legislature about this approach as they debated limiting stops over infractions like a broken tail light.
Walz said that the patrol is not looking for outdated car tabs, even as he urged people to renew their tabs. “This is not about blanket harassment,” he said. “This is about stopping people from doing really dangerous things.”
State Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a Democrat from New Hope, sponsored the traffic stop bill and is vice chairman of the House’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee. He said he wants data on these traffic stops to make sure they’re not disproportionately impacting people of color. He said lack of a seat belt should not be an emphasis for police. He also said he wants to see data proving the patrol is only doing traffic stops for safety issues like speeding or impairment.
“If there’s any way we can focus on removing those guns from off the streets and stop the continuing harm that is happening in those communities, I think that’s a good idea,” Frazier said. “But I also want to make sure we’re not … exacerbating the disparities that we have with traffic stops.”
Walz met with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and interim city police chief Amelia Huffman on Monday to update them on the state policing initiatives and about the status of the city police department. The governor said they’ll be “providing some extra resources” to Minneapolis for its upcoming Aquatennial event this weekend.
“Big events like this we need to all be there,” he said of law enforcement.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information from the Minnesota State Patrol.