The Letter of the Law

What ever became of Minneapolis's promise to stamp out racial profiling?

One late September afternoon, in the midst of a lackluster, losing re-election campaign, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton quietly presided over a meeting in Room 333 of Minneapolis City Hall. It was, she claimed later, more important to her than any campaigning she had been doing that day.

Over the din of jackhammers crushing the pavement on Fifth Street outside, a group of 14, including three Minneapolis police officers, two mayoral staffers, and eight citizens, discussed racial profiling. The hope was to get the Minneapolis Police Department to agree to guidelines preventing biased policing. In all, only four in the group were white--seven were African-American, one an African immigrant, one Latino and one Middle Eastern. Two were women--Sayles Belton and a Minneapolis police officer.

For a little more than an hour, there was lively, congenial debate over recommendations drafted by Ron Thaniel, Sayles Belton's policy aide. The group struggled over points of the policy, including educating immigrant communities on constitutional rights, letting motorists know they don't have to agree to have their vehicles searched, and defining what makes for a suspicious vehicle. But in the end, there was little consensus. The one thing everyone could agree on was that officers should refrain from calling motorists "the n-word" and other racial epithets.

Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson
David Kern
Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson

Last January, the Minneapolis Police Department released results of a six-month survey showing that minority drivers in Minneapolis were indeed stopped more often than whites; a similar study showed that in St. Paul, white drivers were stopped most often, but black and Hispanic drivers were searched at twice the rate of whites. Citizens and politicians alike hemmed and hawed about what should be done.

In February, several state lawmakers tried to introduce legislation mandating a statewide racial-profiling policy, but ultimately all that passed was a diluted bill offering squad-car video cameras to police departments that volunteer to collect racial data. In June, with the help of a federal mediator, St. Paul police reached an agreement with local civil rights leaders; the city council approved the plan a month later.

Across the river, MPD Chief Robert Olson, who was reappointed to a three-year term just days after the survey was made public, vowed that the department would address the issue immediately. Sayles Belton and various Minneapolis City Council members called for swift action.

But so far, very little has happened in Minneapolis. What's taking so long?

Since July, the mayor and her staff have been meeting with police officers and community leaders to hammer out some kind of policy, with varying degrees of progress. In late October, the panel finally released its recommendations. Overall, the panel suggests that the MPD should "eliminate racial profiling and inappropriate police conduct by increasing trust and understanding between the police department, communities of color and all citizens of Minneapolis through more effective communications and interaction."

The document, produced by the mayor's office and a small task force, goes on to list eight "issues of concern," along with recommendations for dealing with each. With regard to consent searches, the policy recommends that police create an "advisory document" in various languages to be handed out to let immigrants know they can refuse a vehicle search. For police disciplinary action, the draft recommends a civilian review board. Such a panel already exists, but is frequently criticized for failing to uphold more than a handful of citizen complaints. For civil rights issues, the policy recommends that the city's equally controversial Civil Rights Department and already overburdened Attorney's Office "be charged with hosting community meetings explaining guaranteed constitutional and civil rights to immigrant communities" with "special emphasis on the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments."

The proposal also notes that cops should carry business cards and issue them upon request; that race, gender, and ethnicity should not be used in determining whether to stop a vehicle; and that the MPD should review its policy regarding racial and ethnic slurs.

All of which adds up to pretty much what police are supposed to do under existing law and under the U.S. Constitution, critics complain. Outgoing 10th Ward Council Member Lisa McDonald, for example, wonders why the process is taking so long if officers aren't being asked to do more than respect existing law. "Some of us are kinda waiting for something to happen," McDonald says. "And some of us won't be here much longer." Council members, she complains, "are not in the loop at all, and I think that's deliberate."

Matthew Stark, a member of the citizens' subcommittee addressing racial profiling and a former director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, agrees that a definitive racial-profiling policy in Minneapolis has been too slow in coming. "There are conflicts within the police department internally, and also with the general public and the non-police people that have been supervising it," he says. "It may turn out to be a step in the right direction, but a very timid one.

"There are correct directions here, but there are parts of the proposal that don't go nearly far enough in regulating police," Stark continues, adding that he is concerned about training police to deal with minorities and immigrants, people he fears have no idea they have the right to refuse to be searched. People often mistakenly believe either that they must agree to anything a police officer asks, or that refusing will be seen as suspicious and be held against them. According to Minneapolis Deputy Chief Greg Hestness, for nearly 15 years MPD officers have had "advisory documents" written in English explaining that people don't have to agree.

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