Critics object to Minneapolis laws against spitting and lurking

The city of Minneapolis should repeal ordinances that ban spitting and lurking, as there is no evidence that they deter crime, residents told City Council members on Wednesday.

The city's police union contends the ordinances are legitimate law enforcement tools that can help thwart more serious crime. But critics say they're used to target people of color.

Council Members Cam Gordon and Blong Yang have introduced a resolution to eliminate the laws.

Data from the Minneapolis Police Department show that between 2009 and 2014, African-Americans were more likely than whites to be arrested in connection with lurking. The numbers also show that most often, white people called police to report the suspected lurkers.

Maria Mitchell, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, said the spitting and lurking laws are like a modern day version of the Black Codes. Those were laws passed in southern states just after the end of slavery. She said that was a time when black people could be imprisoned for the most minor offenses.

"Of course, they're not ending up on chain gangs here. But what we're seeing is people are being plucked out of their everyday lives to go to court, be in jail and then to be released for lack of probable cause, to be released because the case gets dismissed, but not before you're plucked out of your life," she said.

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Others at the public hearing said the laws also target the homeless. Rachel Bean, an advocate for the homeless who does street outreach, said the laws are used to push the homeless away from the general population, especially downtown.

"It's not actually supporting any homeless folks. It's not getting them the services they need. It's not getting them housing, certainly," she said. "In fact, it's making it harder for them to get housing. It's just moving them around."

Bean was referring to a partnership between the Downtown Improvement District and the city of Minneapolis to focus law enforcement and social services on chronic offenders who are often homeless or in need of mental health treatment.

Mike Maney, chair of the district's safe zone committee, said the efforts to address crime and the problems that contribute to it face a setback if the council repeals the laws.

"There've been concerns over the last few years around the perceptions of safety in our city, on our streets, in our parking ramps and in the skyways. These types of laws allow for ways to manage these environments," he said. "While not perfect, I think we can find ways to effectively deal with any changes that are required and provide the environment that our citizens desire."

No one from the Minneapolis Police Department spoke at the hearing. However, police union President-elect Lt. Bob Kroll told MPR News before the hearing that the laws should stay in place. Kroll also disputed the notion that police use lurking laws to racially profile people of color.

"Oftentimes in the lurking cases, there's a 911 caller that's providing the description of somebody that's doing something," he said. "So for the officers to stop anyone other than what's described in the call would be foolish for them."

Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau has said one of the challenges to improving public safety in high crime neighborhoods with high minority populations is that it requires increased police presence. And she has said that can strain relationships with those residents.

Minneapolis resident Leroy Duncan said he understands that police officers need to build strong bonds with communities of color as a way to make neighborhoods safer. But he said the enforcement of lurking and spitting laws hurts that effort.

"If we don't have those relationships with law enforcement, then it becomes harder and harder for law enforcement to solve crimes," he said. "So I think these laws are the exact opposite of what law enforcement needs to be doing."

The council's public safety committee will hold another public hearing in two weeks and then vote on the repeal of the lurking and spitting laws.

Lurking citations in Minneapolis: January 2012 to September 2014

Mpls. lurking citations: Jan. 2012 to Sept. 2014
Minneapolis police have issued more citations for lurking in the city's downtown than in any other neighborhood.
MPR News graphic by Bill Wareham | Data: Minneapolis Police Department