African-Americans in Minneapolis were more than 11 times likelier than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana, even though studies show similar usage rates, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union.
ACLU of Minnesota attorney Teresa Nelson says some police officers may be unaware that they're treating people of color differently than whites.
"A loud argument between two white folks might be, 'OK people, move along.' And a loud argument between two black individuals leads to a disorderly conduct arrest," Nelson said.
The national group's analysis of low-level arrest data from 2004 to 2012 doesn't explain why African-Americans were disproportionately arrested. But Nelson said she suspects some of the problem may stem from what she considers an "over-emphasis" by Minneapolis police on going after minor, nonviolent offenses.
Quality-of-life crimes, such as disorderly conduct and loitering, she said, are subjective calls that may be affected by an officer's racial bias.
The national ACLU says Minnesota has the third highest gap in the nation between the arrest rates of whites and blacks for marijuana possession.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said the city is tackling the disparities on many fronts, including training for all officers in fair and impartial policing.
"We are working to increase the diversity of the police force so that the department reflects the communities that we serve, and are reviewing and modifying practices that may contribute to disparities," she said. "The [ACLU] report also reflects progress, for which I commend the department. But we still have far to go."
Council Member Andrew Johnson is proposing that the city analyze arrest data of all police officers for patterns of racial bias.
"With data analysis, it doesn't tell the full story, but it tells part of the story," Johnson said. "And it helps us better understand where we might want to focus and look closer at particular officers, particular citation types, or behaviors, to figure out how to eliminate these disparities."
Johnson has been working with Police Chief Janeé Harteau on the directive.
"I consider any disparity in arrest totals to be concerning," Harteau said in a statement Tuesday. "Equally important to me is getting a clear and broad picture of the situation."
Harteau said she will ask her department's analysis unit to also look into crime locations and reported suspect information. She said she stands by a decision to train every member of the police department on fair and impartial policing by the end of next year. A separate effort is under way to build "police legitimacy within communities of color," she said.
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