Choi: Ending low-level traffic stops hasn't led to more crime in Ramsey Co.

Three person on the podium
St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry, right, speaks at a news conference in St. Paul alongside Mayor Melvin Carter, left, and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi on Wednesday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Updated 3:20 p.m.

Ending traffic stops for broken tail lights and similar vehicle violations has not led to more violent crime but has dramatically cut the racial disparities in police stops in Ramsey County, John Choi, the county attorney, said Wednesday.

In September 2021, Choi said he would no longer prosecute cases that stem solely from traffic stops unrelated to public safety, ending a practice he said disproportionately affected people of color. He cited the deaths of Philando Castile and Daunte Wright, two Black men killed by police in Twin Cities traffic stops.

Critics questioned whether the shift would lead to a jump in crime.

On Wednesday, Choi, St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry and other officials laid out an analysis by researchers funded by a local foundation comparing data on low-level stops before and after the changes that indicate the changes have not hurt public safety.

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“All indications are we’re moving in the right direction,” Choi told reporters.

The drop in low-level stops was especially significant in St. Paul.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said not focusing on stopping people for broken tail lights means that officers can spend more time going after drivers who pose a threat on the roads. Stops for moving violations now account for a much larger share of traffic stops in the city, he noted.

“Just a couple of years ago they were less than 70 percent of our traffic stops here in St. Paul. Today, 93 percent of our traffic stops in St. Paul are about those things that make our community members safer,” he said.

As an alternative to pulling people over for a single tail light or headlight burned out, Choi noted that in Ramsey County Roseville and St. Paul police have been sending license plate information into a database that can automatically send letters to people noting the problem and asking them to fix it.

Roseville sent out some 1,500 letters along with 50 “lights on” coupons to replace the light, while St. Paul sent out more than 400 letters and 14 coupons.

“We want valid drivers that are insured, that have safe vehicles to operate,” said Henry, noting that police don’t want drivers to have to choose between paying a ticket or fixing the problem. Officers “don’t want to punish people because of a poverty issue.”

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this report.