Operation Safe Streets

Lancaster's ruling leaves Austin's attorneys fighting an uphill battle. Lacking the MPD's own statistics, attorneys will be forced to rely largely on anecdotal evidence. The team has already gathered affidavits from seven assistant Hennepin County public defenders who say most of those stopped for minor traffic violations or for looking "suspicious" are people of color. "In the vast majority of cases I have handled where defendants were stopped by police," wrote Joseph P. Tamburino, "the reason given for the stop was a minor equipment violation or infringement of traffic rules. The following are examples of the reasons given for such stops: no rear license plate light, no taillight, brake light not working, obstructed windshield, tinted windows, and failure to signal a turn. The more minor the traffic violation that gave rise to the stop, the greater the likelihood that the person stopped is African American, American Indian, or Latino." Often, other attorneys noted, those who are stopped end up charged with something else, like driving without a license or open bottle.

It isn't the first time Minneapolis police have been cited for the race differential in their approach to law enforcement. In a 1993 article, "Is the Drug War Racist?" USA Today pointed out that drug crimes are one of the few categories of law enforcement in which police make decisions about where to concentrate their efforts as opposed to merely reacting. And since white people and black people use drugs at roughly the same rate, drug arrest figures broken down by race can be a telling index of a city's policing priorities. Minneapolis made the lead of the story: "If you are black in the USA, you are four times as likely to be arrested on drug charges as a white person. If you live in Minneapolis, you are 22 times as likely." The series proceeded to remark upon the apparent contradiction between that statistic and the city's liberal image.

"Attorneys in our offices always knew this problem existed," says Babcock. "There have always been pretextual stops. The fact that they [spelled it out as a program] has given us a vehicle to challenge the police on the way they have operated for decades. They finally put it in writing." She says she's hopeful that the state Supreme Court will offer a ruling more friendly to civil liberties than the U.S. Supreme Court's version, as it did in the matter of DWI roadblocks a few years ago. But Hestness says the MPD isn't worried about the Austin case. He maintains--despite press releases to the contrary--that his officers don't make "pretextual stops."

"We do stops based on violation of law or probable cause," he says, "and if they lead into a more serious offense, that's an added benefit. As long as we can articulate the legal standing for our actions, we're safe. We are always free to go up and talk to people. This is America. We can talk to whomever we want."

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