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Racial profiling study sparks controversy in Rochester
In September, researchers at the University of Minnesota Law School released a controversial study on traffic stops. It found law enforcement officers around the state were stopping and searching black, latino, and American Indian drivers at greater rates than white drivers. Some city's police departments that participated in the study have vowed to do tackle the issue. Others, like Rochester's police department, have responded by calling the study flawed. This response has underscored the debate in Rochester over the police department's treatment of minorities.

Rochester, Minn. — W.C. Jordan moved to Rochester to become a manager at the IBM plant in 1997. By then, Rochester had consistently ranked among Money Magazine's most livable cities in the nation. But Jordan, an African-American, began to question the city's 'livability' soon after his move. On his way home from working the night shift, he says, it wasn't uncommon to be stopped by the city's police.

"I had police officers pull up beside my vehicle and look inside, then they decided they wanted to pull me over," he says. "When they pulled me over, they didn't discuss any kind of violation. They wanted to know where I worked, where I was coming from. And once they find out that you work at IBM, and you're coming from work, they let you go, but there's no mention of why they pulled you over."

Jordan grew up in North Carolina in the 1960s. He witnessed first-hand the integration struggle. It's his impression that race relations were improving. That was before he arrived in Rochester.

"Then you move to somwhere to another part of the United States, and it takes you back to what you already experienced in the south 30 years ago, and you're saying 'Man! I can't believe this is going on in 2003,'" says Jordan.

Jordan is the local NAACP branch president and serves on the Olmsted County Human Rights Commission. He says many African-Americans in Rochester have similar stories of being pulled over for no apparent reason besides the color of their skin.

"I think that this community could be the best medium-sized city to live in, but there needs to be some actions taken to make that happen."
- W.C. Jordan, President, Rochester branch, NAACP

That's why, he says, the results of a recent study on racial profiling didn't surprise him. According to the state-funded study, 9.8 percent of all traffic stops involved black drivers. However, according to the census, blacks of driving age make up only 2.9 percent of the entire population. Black drivers who were stopped were searched more than twice as often as whites. Yet, the study also found when there were searches, whites were more than twice as likely to have contraband as blacks.

Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson denies his officers are guilty of racial profiling. Peterson says the study is skewed by incorrect population estimates. In fact, the study was based on the 2000 federal census, which reported blacks of driving age as making up 2.9 percent of Rochester's population. Peterson says the real number of black drivers in Rochester is over 9 percent. He says the 2000 census failed to count scores of black immigrants from Somalia and the Sudan living in the city. Peterson says he based his number on an estimate from the Rochester School District.

"I am told by the state demographer's office, the city planning and zoning and many others that that is the most accurate and reliable data that's out there," says Peterson.

But according to Barbara Ronningen, immigration specialist of the State Demographer's office, school district population estimates are just that.

"Nine percent of the school children are black. Not nine percent of the population," says Ronningen.

Ronningen says the proportion of blacks, immigrant or otherwise, to the rest of the population in Rochester hasn't changed noticeably since the census was taken. She says the state demographer's office uses a variety of sources to get a clear idea of how many immigrant refugees live in a given city. She says when she looks at independent estimates of population numbers in Rochester, the census results stack up.

"There is an estimated population that came from the census bureau from the counties in 2002 by race and ethnicity, and that's not showing huge differences in proportions," says Ronningen.

Police Chief Peterson's disgreementwith the census numbers has drawn criticism from Rochester's only daily newspaper, the Post Bulletin.

In an editorial two weeks ago, the paper recommended that police policy be evaluated and racial profiling practices rooted out.

A week later, Peterson fired back, again labelling the census bureau's numbers inaccurate. He says the newspaper's editorial was a disservice to the community and that it ignored what he calls 'the reality' of the issue.

"The real issue here is that, while we argue whether minorities are stopped two or three times the rate they should, we totally ignore the fact that minorities are a victim of violent crime 40 times more than they should, that they're killed 50 times more than they should, and the common denominator here is not race. It's poverty," says Peterson.

Peterson says his officers come into contact more often with blacks, because much of the black population in Rochester tends to belong to a socio-economic class that typically has more contact with the police.

Tom Johnson is the president of the Council on Crime and Justice, the organization that conducted the racial profiling study. Johnson says Peterson's response to the study's results has been more rigid than what he would have liked. He concedes that census figures may be slightly inaccurate, but he says Peterson is missing the point. He says part of the study showed Rochester police are more likely to search black motorists than white motorists. He points out this was based on the police department's own data, not census numbers.

"What needs now to happen is just to focus on that," he says. "Not on how much of an adjustment in stop rates would have to occur if you captured all the black population. If there's any difference, then you have to step back and say, 'Alright, is my police department, in some way, contributing to the disparity? And what are we going to do about it?' That's where you go from here."

Back in Rochester, NAACP branch president W.C. Jordan says he and many others are also disappointed in Police Chief Peterson's response to the study. He says Peterson's attitude won't help relations between the police and blacks in Rochester.

"I think that this community could be the best medium-sized city to live in, but there needs to be some actions taken to make that happen," says Jordan.

Jordan is calling for a citizens' review committee for the Rochester Police. He says the St. Paul NAACP has done the same with the St. Paul Police. Jordan hopes to form a committee to meet with the Police Department before the end of November.

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