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Minneapolis police pressured to cease stops that lead to disparities in arrests

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Protesters stand on the concrete barrier.
Protesters stand on the concrete barrier between lanes of I-94 during the highway shutdown that Black Lives Matter Minneapolis put in July 2016 in response to the Falcon Heights police killing of Philando Castile.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News 2016

Some Minneapolis residents want the police department to put a moratorium on a certain type of traffic stop which they say unfairly targets people of color. They brought their concerns in front of a city council committee Wednesday and asked that Minneapolis police stop making "equipment stops" until they find a way to do so in a non-discriminatory way.

At issue is the type of traffic stop in which an officer pulls you over for driving a vehicle with a visible malfunction — like a broken taillight.

One by one, African-Americans like Elizer Darris, stood before members of the council's Public Safety and Emergency Management committee and recited anecdotes about being pulled over by Minneapolis police officers.   

"Eight times. Two years. One actual ticket," Darris counted.

The field director for the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union, Darris said an officer once told him his brake lights weren't working, even though Darris says he continually pumped his brakes to show the officer they were.

Darris felt himself losing the composure he tries to maintain with officers to avoid a possible escalation.

"And I can sense that at any moment I could lose my life in the interaction. I can sense an impending potential for death," he said.

African-Americans are nearly 19 percent of the population of the city of Minneapolis, yet in 2018, African-Americans made up 47 percent of all equipment stops, according to data released by the police department.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo acknowledged the racial disparity but does not support curtailing equipment stops. He said data show traffic crashes are concentrated in predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods. 

"It is unconscionable to me that our friends, neighbors and family who happen to live in low-income neighborhoods are more susceptible to both vehicle and pedestrian crashes," said Arradondo. "Traffic enforcement is a tool to help keep those communities and our communities safe."

The total number of traffic stops has dropped by nearly 70 percent since 2010, the police department says.

Darris said he still thinks about the 2016 fatal encounter between Philando Castile and St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who stopped Castile for a busted taillight. An MPR analysis of St. Anthony police data found that African-Americans like Castile were more likely than whites to be pulled over for equipment stops.

Castile's killing sparked discussions around the country about racial profiling, use of force and police misconduct. It also inspired some to find ways to prevent future interactions from happening.

Don Samuels, a former Minneapolis City Council member, is the CEO of MicroGrants, an organization that provides small loans to low-income entrepreneurs and funds a program called Lights On.

"We decided to come up with this idea after Philando's death," said Samuels. "When you get pulled over by a cop in any of 25 cities, you get a voucher to get your light replaced for free."

Arradondo said the city is participating in the program and will include how often the coupons are handed out in the city's traffic stop data.