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Study Suggests Discrimination in St. Paul Traffic Stops
By Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
May 24, 2001
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  • African American drivers were stopped in disproportionately high numbers, compared to their proportion of the city's adult population.
  • Hispanic drivers were stopped at a rate slightly higher than their proportion of the city's adult population during the period of data collection.
  • White and Native American drivers were stopped at rates lower than their representation in the adult population.
  • For Asian drivers, the difference between overall stop rate and adult population rate was not statistically significant.
  • Most stops of black drivers occur in neighborhoods with above average concentrations of both traffic stops and black residents, but the greatest disproportionality between population rates and stop rates for black drivers is found in predominantly white neighborhoods with small overall numbers of traffic stops.
  • After being stopped, African American, Hispanic, and Native American drivers are subjected to both pat-down searches of their persons and searches of their vehicles at rates higher than the search rates for white and Asian drivers.
  • Traffic stops initiated by officers of the Selective Enforcement Unit of the Traffic and Accident Division of the department, while still disproportionally high for black drivers, present lower levels of disproportionality than do other stops.

    From the report conducted by the Institute on Race and Poverty. To see the entire support, visit the institute's Web site.
    An analysis of St. Paul police traffic-stop data shows African Americans and other people of color are stopped by police at disproportionately higher rates than whites. However, the analysis did not offer an opinion as to whether or not racial profiling is being practiced in the city. Instead the report highlights several shortcomings in the data collection procedure.

    THE REPORT RELEASED by the Institute on Race and Poverty doesn't contain any information which drastically differs from the preliminary findings of the traffic-stop data collected by the department from April though December of 2000. Compared to 2000 census data on the St. Paul neighborhoods where the traffic stops occurred, the institute concluded that African Americans were stopped at rates which were disproportionately higher than their population numbers. The study also concluded black and Hispanic motorists were more likely to be searched by police than white drivers.

    However institute director john powell says that doesn't necessarily mean drivers of color are being discriminated against. Instead, he says there are some important pieces of information that aren't available to them.

    "We used the adult population as our base instead of the driving population because that's not available in the 2000 census. Ideally you would have a study of driving patterns in a particular area, you'd also know why people were stopped," said powell.

    The report also found that the disparity was highest in neighborhoods where police presence was low and where the population of whites is particularly high.

    Chief William Finney says he's disturbed by the idea that some officers may be stopping blacks just because they're travelling in predominantly white parts of town. However he said in some mostly white neighborhoods, it's unavoidable because those areas contain well-travelled roads.

    But Finney says he's most troubled by data which shows that blacks and Hispanics were much more likely to be searched by officers. "If we're not asking white Minnesotans or , specifically, white St. Paulites, 'may I search your vehicle?' on a minor traffic violation, why should we ask an individual from the community of color that question?" Finney said.

    Chief Finney says he doesn't believe racial profiling is a major problem among his officers. But he has been listening to members of St. Paul's black community who disagree with him on that point. Finney has been in ongoing negotiations with the NAACP over the issue and says the talks have made progress toward developing anti-racial profiling guidelines. Finney says because Minnesota has the highest incarceration rate of African American males in the country, black Minnesotans have good reason to question police procedures.

    "What's going on in law enforcement then that we have this many people of color who are incarcerated in a system that the Supreme Court says is biased racially, but we don't want to take an analytical look at what's going on in law enforcement?"

    - William Finney
    St. Paul Chief of Police
    Nearly 10 years ago, a task force created by the Minnesota Supreme Court found that racial discrimination was widespread in the state's criminal justice system. Other statistics show that black males in Minnesota are more than 20 times more likely to be arrested than white males. The chief heavily criticized other law enforcement agencies and the state Legislature for not taking steps to prohibit any form of racial profiling.

    "What's going on in law enforcement then that we have this many people of color who are incarcerated in a system that the Supreme Court says is biased racially, but we don't want to take an analytical look at what's going on in law enforcement? It doesn't make sense," Finney says.

    powell says he's also disappointed that the Legislature hasn't enacted legislation related to racial profiling or the collection of data on traffic stops. But he says racial profiling, like other controversial legislation, may take a few tries to pass. Lawmakers could still take up the issue during the upcoming special legislative session.