Minneapolis police cut back on pretextual traffic stops in effort to reduce racial profiling

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced Friday that Minneapolis police will scale back traffic stops for some minor infractions, such as expired tabs. The decision follows a similar move in Brooklyn Center, where the practice was ended after officer Kim Potter killed Daunte Wright during a stop for expired tabs earlier this year.

Traffic stops are the most common way civilians interact with police, and for some, the encounters have been deadly. Nationwide in 2020, 120 people were killed during routine traffic stops, according to Mapping Police Violence. Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader says the new policy will help address racial inequities “while not compromising public safety.” 

“The idea is to eliminate a small category of stops that tend to have particularly large racial disparities,” said Maria Ponomarenko, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and co-founder of the Policing Project at New York University, which works with law enforcement and community groups to promote better policing.

When host Tom Crann asked Ponomarenko if the measure would reduce racial profiling by police, she gave a measured reply: “A little bit.”

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The traffic stops in question are sometimes referred to as “pretextual” because they aren’t always about the minor infraction that ostensibly precipitated the interaction.

“[Police] often will go into what they perceive to be higher-crime neighborhoods and look for people to stop in the hopes that the stop will then turn up evidence of something more serious,” Ponomarenko said.

Minneapolis Police Department data shows that Black drivers are disproportionately searched during pretextual stops — and far less likely to be arrested than white drivers who are searched.

Ponomarenko said this is evidence that “officers are being more suspicious of Black drivers than they should be.”

Pretexual stops “are largely ineffective,” Ponomarenko said. Research from the Policing Project has found that an incredibly small percentage of such stops produce evidence of a serious violation. Moreover, the end of the stop-and-frisk program in New York in 2013 had no effect on crime rates.

Ponomarenko pointed out that the new Minneapolis Police Department policy is relatively limited in scope: “By and large, officers’ authority to stop [drivers] hasn’t changed very much.” Officers can still pull drivers over for more serious offenses like speeding, then cite them for a minor infraction.

What should you know about your rights if you get pulled over? “You have the right to say no” if police ask to search your vehicle, and that can’t be used as justification for a search, Ponomarenko said.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.