Routine traffic stops are bad for blacks, whites, and the boys in blue

Routine traffic stops are more than part of the job. They're part of the budget.

Routine traffic stops are more than part of the job. They're part of the budget.


One day, Charles Marohn was home baking cookies.

Don’t judge.

Marohn was midpreparation when he realized he was short on butter. He climbed into his car and headed to a Brainerd grocery store. He was doing 45 in a 35 when he got pulled over.

The cop approached his window and asked Marohn if he was drunk. It took Marohn a minute to realize the cop was smelling the cooking oil on his hands. He protested. The officer asked why he was lying.

Finally, he let Marohn off with a speeding ticket and a warning.

This wasn’t profiling. Marohn is white and favors suit jackets and ties tucked into sweaters; sometimes there’s a scarf. He looks more private-school principal than criminal. 

A civil engineer by training, Marohn cofounded Strong Towns, a Brainerd group pushing to rethink the way we run our cities. Marohn likes telling the stories behind his speeding tickets — he’s racked up a few — and calls it an act of “table-setting.”

Invited to that table are people who don’t often break bread together: Black Lives Matter activists demanding an end to racism in the cities, and the sweater-wearing white folks of towns like Brainerd (pop. 14,000, 94 percent white).

The real issue is the way we expect cops to reach into our pockets to fund their jobs. 

In 2014, the most recent year for which stats are available, police in Minnesota sold about $6.8 million worth of assets seized during arrests. (The arresting agency keeps 90 percent of proceeds.) That’s more than double the $3.1 million in sales in 2004, which was more than double the $1.5 million collected in 1999.

They’re seizing cars, cash, and plenty of guns. Not all are the kind used in gang violence. Those 18 rifles and shotguns seized by the Wright County Sheriff’s Office in 2014 were probably a bigger threat to exurban deer.

“The average seizure [in Minnesota] amounts to about $1,400,” says Lee McGrath, head of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-minded legal advocacy group. “So this is a tool that is being used on beings who are not members of an international drug cartel.”

Then come the fines. Minneapolis’ budget predicts police will account for $1.7 million in revenue through fines and forfeitures. 

Marohn sees driving enforcement as a sort of high-speed stop-and-frisk, a chance to check if a civilian needs to be arrested for something else. Maybe that driver smells like pot. Nationwide, property seizures in marijuana-related busts netted $1 billion between 2002 and 2012.

Instead of the “broken windows” theory, it’s busted taillights. City cops get sent into “high-crime” areas, where they aggressively pull over drivers who are, by nature of being pulled over, going to get arrested more...thus making it a high-crime area.

In rural and suburban towns, “high-crime” might be the highway or the place where people, even bakers of cookies, always seem to drive 45 in a 35.

Then there’s the ubiquitous sketch of the “high-crime” driver.

Over 14 years, Philando Castile — young, black, and dreadlocked — was pulled over and cited by cops 49 times. Here’s how the Star Tribune described his “criminal record”:

“Numerous stops came after he didn’t use a turn signal. A few came after he was speeding. He was stopped for rolling through a right turn on a red light, having window tints that were too dark, and at least twice for not having a rear license plate light. He was rarely ticketed for the reason he was stopped.”

Over his lifetime, Castile paid $7,000 in fines, more than a fifth of his annual salary as a school lunch supervisor. He was never convicted of a nondriving offense.

A lot of people, maybe most of us, are committing some kind of driving offense regularly. Especially when we’re running late. We just don’t get pulled over for it. Castile did.

Marohn thinks driving is overpoliced. His remedy is predictably technocratic. Set up cameras to catch bad driving and send the offenders a ticket in the mail.

“If affluent people, in affluent parts of town, started getting [ticketed], they’d get pissed off, and some of these driving laws would change. I’m not saying that’s good, but it’s a better system than what we have.”

Imagine if the system we have was a guy, accused of the same things police are: harassing people, grabbing everyone’s shit and hawking it for cash, unnecessarily assaulting, even killing people. Wouldn’t you want him stopped? Asked a few questions? Forced to prove who gave him a license to wheel around this way?

That last one’s tricky. The stop-and-frisk-the-glove-compartment way of policing is one we’ve tacitly accepted, with most of us unbothered by its worst offenses. Those bad things happen to someone else.

Don’t you dare raise my taxes to keep me safe. Go pull over some criminal.

Maybe someday we’ll create colorblind cops, sensitive to their innate biases. But it’s easier to imagine a world where we just don’t instruct law enforcement to aggressively patrol certain areas and behaviors, with our funding scheme — and, let’s bet, their commanding officers — reminding them that busts mean bucks. 

They’re just doing their job, the job we pay for, one way or another.

Let’s ask them to do a different one.

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