Operation Safe Streets

"Anybody who violates the law, we're going to harass."

Just two days after Minneapolis dispatched the forces as part of Operation Safe Streets, a couple of the specially instructed officers stopped a 1981 Buick on Pillsbury Avenue South for a brake lights violation and failure to signal a turn in a timely fashion. They claimed that when they approached the car, driven by a black man named Bob Austin, they saw him "moving as if moving something on the floor of the car." While Austin contends that the officers forced the ensuing search of his car, the attending officers say Austin consented. Either way, they found cocaine and marijuana, and Austin was charged with Fifth Degree Possession of a Controlled Substance and Possession of Marijuana in a Motor Vehicle.

Austin's case is at the center of the challenge to Operation Safe Streets by attorneys from the Hennepin County Public Defenders office and the Legal Rights Center. They are arguing that the evidence taken from Austin's car should be suppressed because the search itself was illegal and discriminatory. Court documents in the case note that Safe Streets officers were encouraged to "detain selected individuals based on unspecified 'characteristics' and 'behaviors' in targeted communities of color, by using admittedly pretextual stops." Austin's attorneys are claiming that that directive, along with the use of an "untested profile," violates state and federal safeguards against unreasonable search and seizure and constitutional equal protection guarantees. "Officers... do not stop suspects at random, nor do they stop all people who have committed qualifying infractions," continues the legal argument. Nor have police "disclosed the 'characteristics' and 'behaviors' they rely upon as evidence justifying a pretextual stop.

"According to several assistant public defenders," the brief continues, "the great majority of individuals stopped by police since August 1, 1995 for petty misdemeanor offenses have been persons of color. These attorneys estimate that roughly 65 to 70 percent of their clients who have been stopped by police are people of color--a figure hugely disproportionate to the percentage of minorities in Minneapolis." Assistant Hennepin County Public Defender Sandra Babcock offers this scenario: "Imagine if the profile was of a white guy in his 40s dressed in a gray suit. Say there was a rash of burglaries in an affluent neighborhood and that was the description and they started stopping white men on their way home from work. It wouldn't happen."

"It's not irrational to target a neighborhood with high crime rates," says Joe Margulies. "But if you're a hammer, then everything you see is a nail. Safe Streets is a vehicle to harass people. They admit stopping people on minor traffic violations or because of selected behavior or characteristics. It's a way of saying they are stopping people they wouldn't otherwise stop. They don't care about the turn signal, they think the person they are stopping is a bad guy. It appears that they are stopping anyone who is young, black, and generally male, in a new car or an old beater. The profile is whatever they want it to be. That's the problem."

Babcock and the other attorneys representing Austin sought in various ways to get police department records pertaining to Safe Streets, including the racial breakdown of arrests. They say they were told by MPD officials that the information exists, but that they couldn't have it "without a court order." City Pages' requests for information were likewise denied, on the grounds that it would be too burdensome to compile.

Defense attorneys finally filed a motion for discovery in late May asking for arrest reports, the names of officers working the program, training materials, and field notes pertaining to Austin's arrest. In mid-June, the motion was almost entirely denied by Hennepin County Judge Joan Lancaster. The only documents she would order the MPD to provide were the field notes made by officers, if any, and general crime statistics from the targeted neighborhoods.

Lancaster's rationale, in part, was based on the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling in Michael A. Whren and James L. Brown vs. United States, which affirmed the principle of pretextual stops. That case bore a resemblance to Austin's: Two black men sat in their car at a stop sign for what officers claimed was an unusually long time and then sped off at an "unreasonable" speed without signaling. The officers--who were admittedly on patrol for drug activity, not traffic violations--caught up with the young men, searched their car, and found crack cocaine and PCP-laced marijuana. Attorneys for Whren and Brown argued that the officers simply used the traffic stop as an excuse to search the vehicle for drugs, a search they wouldn't have had probable cause to make otherwise. The court ruled that as long as the traffic stop was valid, it didn't matter what the officers' intentions were.

A lawyer in the case told the Philadelphia Inquirer afterward that the ruling "opens the door for police to do whatever they want. If you follow any motorists long enough, they'll violate a traffic law. Maybe the license plate holder conceals a number on the plate," he said, "or maybe something is hanging from a rear view mirror. And if the stop is racially motivated or for personal revenge, that's fine with the Supreme Court."

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