This year, police in many Minnesota communities are tracking the race of every person they stop. A proposal to require race data collection was defeated in the last legislative session. Instead, police and sheriffs departments were offered incentives to volunteer for a pilot project. Participating agencies will get video cameras for squad cars. Sixty five agencies started gathering data last month.
Many cities and counties in rural Minnesota have been criticized in recent years for allegedly targeting minorities.
Minority groups in Willmar, Moorhead and Bemidji claim police make traffic stops based on skin color. Those three communities are among the 65 agencies that volunteered for the racial profiling project.
The process works like this: On a weekday morning, Moorhead officer Ryan Nelson makes a routine traffic stop for speeding. He finds a child in the car who is not wearing a seatbelt and issues a ticket.
Then he pulls out the form used for race data collection.
He fills in the time, date, and location, the drivers age, sex and race, and the reason for the stop. It takes about ten seconds, and officer Nelson finds it only a minor inconvenience.
"It only takes a few seconds to fill out the form and send it in. We always have to do paperwork and that's just part of it." said Nelson. "You just accept it and we'll see what the results are at the end of the year."
Officer Nelson is confident the results will disprove claims of racial profiling in Moorhead. A report two years ago by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found police disproportionately stopped minorities. Police say the report misinterpreted statistics.
Moorhead Deputy Chief Wayne Arnold is confident the data collected in this project will be carefully analyzed before it's released.
Arnold has more than a passing interest in racial profiling, he's written a masters thesis on the topic. Volunteering to collect the race data shows the police department is concerned about race relations, said Arnold. But he's quick to admit data alone won't resolve the issue.
"I think the real issue is to gain the trust of the entire community so these feelings don't happen any more. And just by doing a study I don't think is going to prove the issue or not," said Arnold.
Arnold said he hopes the data collected will bring disparate groups together to discuss ways to improve relations.
Minnesota Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Dennis Delmont believes the project can serve to open a dialogue between minority groups and law enforcement.
"There are alot of things we should be doing that have nothing to do with racial profiling, but have alot to do with building trust between communities of color and law enforcement," said Delmont. Things we have not done and should be doing, things we look forward to doing."
But many minority groups are not supporting the current data collection, said Delmont, or even a discussion of ways to improve relations.
"I have personally tried to make contact with those folks on four or five occasions by phone and letter and have received no response. They have backed completely away from the process and that makes it alot more difficult for us," said Delmont.
Cooperation on issues like officer training and recruitment of more minority officers is what Delmont would like to discuss with minority groups.
Joe Day would be happy discuss those issues. The Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council is pleased some police departments are willing to track who they are stopping and why.
"This is a good first step but we've got a long way to go," said Day. "This is the first contact, how they're treated from the ground. The next step is the courts, the next step is how they're sentenced. It's a whole system wide thing we have to look at."
Joe Day would like to see each agency participating in the data collection set up regular meetings with minority groups to discuss the findings.
The success of the project won't be measured by pages of data, said Day, but by improved relationships between the people represented by the numbers.More from MPR