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Blacks far more likely to be cited in St. Paul cop stops

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St. Paul police chief Todd Axtell speaks to the media.
St. Paul police chief Todd Axtell says he's ready to take on the issue of racial disparities in ticketing rates between black and white drivers.
Sam Harper | MPR News file

African-American drivers are much more likely than whites to be ticketed during traffic stops in St. Paul, and it's not close.  

  The population of black, driving-age citizens in the city is about one-fourth that of whites, yet African-Americans made up about half of the people St. Paul police officers stopped and ticketed between 2012 and 2014, an MPR News analysis of 26,000 stops shows. White drivers represented about a third of those traffic-related citations.  

Axtell declined comment on the MPR News findings. But he said he's ready to start talking openly about the numbers the department has collected as he tries to improve the department's relations with the public.    

  "I really believe that transparency builds trust," he said in an interview. "So being transparent with all the data sets we have is going to be critically important as we move forward."    

  The forthcoming data will be more comprehensive than the numbers analyzed by MPR News. It will include all traffic stops, regardless of whether or not drivers were cited, as well as searches conducted during traffic stops.   

    The chief said he expects the data will show racial disparities, but that he doesn't believe officers are intentionally singling out black drivers.    

  "I know many, many of our officers personally. I watch how they do their job," he said. "They provide trusted service with respect. They have a lot of compassion. And they have a lot of passion in doing the right thing."    

  Disparities, he added, may be the result of implicit bias, a phenomenon Axtell says is present in many other professions. He emphasized the data would not be used to discipline officers.     

  While neighborhood data was incomplete, the 2012 to 2014 data reviewed by MPR News found Frogtown and the North End, among the city's most racially diverse neighborhoods, were most often the sites of traffic citations. The data did not show that African-Americans were more likely to be ticketed in whiter neighborhoods. 

      Besides the black and white numbers, Asian-Americans made up 13 percent of ticketed drivers in those years and Hispanics 3 percent. Less than 1 percent of drivers ticketed were Native American.    

  Axtell said he hopes the release of 15 years of data will show members of communities who feel they are treated unfairly, that the department is serious about doing something to address their concerns.   

  "I don't believe we have officers who go on patrol each day the intent of stopping higher percentages of African-American motorists," said Axtell. "I just do not believe that."    

Some people of color in St. Paul do believe officers discriminate against them based on the color of their skin.

    Longtime St. Paul civil rights activist Nathaniel Khaliq said he's been hearing complaints for years.  

  He pointed to an incident from earlier this year in which Frank Baker, a 53-year-old black man was mauled by a police dog while another officer kicked him in the ribs. 

    Axtell apologized to Baker and suspended the police dog's handler for a month. The officer who kicked Baker is no longer on the force. But Khaliq, former head of the local NAACP, said he doesn't believe Baker would have been violently confronted by the police that night if he were white.   

  Regardless of what police chiefs have done over the years to improve community relations, officers on the street haven't seemed to have gotten the memo, he added.  

  "What we're really looking for, though, is that respect on the street by the rank and file officers," said Khaliq. "We're just looking for some kind of normalcy in the relationship and the encounters we have with the police department. That's the piece that's missing."  

  Axtell is making a positive step, Khaliq added, by continuing a process that began under William 'Corky' Finney, the city's first black police chief. 

    In 2000, Finney ordered patrol officers to start recording the race of the people they pulled over in traffic stops, a move Khaliq called ground breaking.  

  In 2001, the department asked the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty to analyze nine months of data. The institute found that African-American drivers were pulled over at disproportionately higher rates than whites. 

    However, the institute did not offer an opinion as to whether police were racially profiling black drivers.    

A similar study was conducted that same year by the Council on Crime and Justice of six months of traffic stops in Minneapolis in 2000. Researchers found that black drivers were stopped in Minneapolis at a rate much higher than their presence in the population.  

  Earlier this year, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau said the department would continue to track demographic data from traffic stops and release the information quarterly.  

  Khaliq said for many African-Americans, the data validates their beliefs that they are being singled out by police just for the color of their skin. He said the numbers bolstered the case for establishing a federally mediated agreement between the city and the Justice Department designed to improve police community relations.    

  "Because, besides having anecdotal information, this added more credence to our complaints and concerns," said Khaliq.  

  For Axtell, the release of a decade-plus trove of data is a crucial missing piece in the ongoing dialogue between police and the community. The numbers, he said, are not an endpoint to those conversations, they mark a new beginning.