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Bemidji police officials dispute racial profiling study
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About 100 American Indians and others rallied in Bemidji recently to draw attention to a new state racial profiling study. The study concluded minorities are disproportionately pulled over for traffic stops. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
A recent study shows racial profiling occurs across Minnesota. In Bemidji, the study sparked renewed protests by American Indians. They've complained for years that Indians in the region are unfairly targeted by law enforcement. Now, some are demanding action. But law enforcement officials in Bemidji deny racial profiling exists. They say the study is flawed.

Bemidji, Minn. — About 100 American Indians rallied in Bemidji earlier this month. They want to call attention to a new state report on racial profiling. For a year, Bemidji police voluntarily turned over traffic stop data for the study. Bemidji was one of 65 law enforcment agencies that participated.

The results of the study aren't a surprise to the region's Indian residents. American Indians represent about nine percent of the driving population in Bemidji. But they accounted for nearly 12 percent of the traffic stops. The study says Bemidji police searched American Indian drivers at three times the rate of white drivers.

Audrey Thayer is a Green Party activist. She says the study validates what American Indians have suspected all along.

"That is pitiful when we have non-natives in this community that will say, 'we didn't know there's a problem here,'" said Thayer. "Well, darn, I do, when I see the cops pulling us over. My grandkids, my children, who have to sit and have to be harassed... These are stories that are going on in this community every single day. And it's heartbreaking. And we want it to stop."

Many people at the rally have seen this before. Paul Schultz, a spiritual leader from the White Earth Reservation, told the crowd about similar protests in the 1970s. He said at that time, Indians threatened to take actions that would affect the regional economy.

"What we did was we made the biggest threat that could be made to the whole area," said Schultz. "And that was to blockade the highways around here at the beginning of the fishing season, and shut the tourist industry down, if something more constructive isn't done. That, ladies and gentlemen, could be done again."

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Image Vernon Bellecourt

Others made similar economic threats. Vernon Bellecourt, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, says people living on the neighboring Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth reservations spend millions of dollars in Bemidji.

"We have a lot of economic power," Bellecourt said. "It is very easy for us to also pull all of that money out of the Bemidji community. That will hurt, and maybe that will wake them up."

Bemidji police chief Bruce Preece denies that race plays a role in who his officers stop on the street. Preece says his department has received only four race-related complaints since he took the job two and a half years ago. All were found to be unsubstantiated. He says the racial profiling study is flawed.

"I'm very disappointed in the study," said Preece. "A considerable amount of state money was invested in this study ... And the net result is that a false statement was made to the public. This is not an accurate picture of our traffic enforcement."

Preece says the problem is in the numbers. The report only considered residents of the city of Bemidji, where there's a smaller Indian population. Preece says if a regional population base had been used, the number of Indian traffic stops wouldn't look so bad.

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Image Bemidji Police Chief Bruce Preece

"We're a regional hub," he said. "We have a tremendous amount of traffic from the county and three Indian reservations ... So to base it on strictly the registered driving population of the city of Bemidji, I believe, is an inaccurate base line.

The study was conducted by the Council on Crime and Justice and the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. It was commissioned by the state Legislature. Myron Orfield is director of the Institute and says the data collection methods they used are typical of racial profiling studies across the country. But Orfield admits Preece has a valid point.

"The studies aren't perfect by any means," said Orfield. "These are the best estimates that we can find. So it's possible, if there is an enormous influx of people that are coming from another area that aren't adequately reflected in the population numbers as a whole ... Then it could skew those results. It's certainly true. We just don't know."

American Indian activists say Bemidji needs a group to keep an eye on the police department. Police officials say the community already has one. There's also the Bemidji Area Race Relations Council. That group reviews about a dozen race-related complaints a year. Most complaints involve race issues in the workplace or rental housing. Only a few have involved law enforcement.

Vince Beyl chairs the Race Relations Council and says many Indians experience racism but don't file complaints because they believe nothing will change. He says the racial profiling study paints an accurate picture. But it reflects a much deeper problem.

"That number, I mean just on traffic stops to me is just scratching the surface," Beyl said. "If you want to talk about, number one, sentencing guidelines, number of arrests, priors, if you really want to get into the system of law enforcement or the criminal justice system ... The numbers are going to be high. That's just a given fact. That's the way it is. And as Indian people, you've known it all your life."

If you visit the Beltrami County Courthouse in Bemidji, it's typical to see a disproportionate number of American Indians waiting for their turn in court. The American Indian population in Beltrami County is about 20 percent. But a court study last year showed American Indians make up more than 35 percent of adults charged with major crimes in the county.

And that number could be even higher. Racial data is incomplete on nearly 15 percent of the court cases. Until recently, Minnesota courts were not required to keep data regarding race. State officials say they're still refining their data collection methods. Some law enforcement and court officials in Bemidji say no one is treated differently because of their race. They say, unfortunately, too many Indians lead lives of poverty, substance abuse and dispair. And, too often, that leads to crime.

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