In the Spotlight

News & Features
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Report: Disparity between arrests, convictions cause for concern
Larger view
In the span of two minutes, two cars drove up to the young men who were standing on a corner in north Minneapolis. A few of them walked up to the cars, and then after a few seconds, the cars drove off. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
Most people who get arrested for low-level offenses in Minneapolis don't get convicted. That's neither unique to Minneapolis, nor a surprise to people in the criminal justice system. But some say the degree of difference between the numbers is troublesome. The Minnesota Council on Crime and Justice has released a report that says the gap between arrests and convictions can fuel citizen distrust in the police department. And the report recommends that the Minneapolis police department reexamine how its officers handle low-level offenders.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The Council on Crime and Justice examined more than 1,800 arrests made by Minneapolis police officers in 2001. The study included minor driving offenses and "livability" crimes, such as loitering with intent to sell narcotics.

Researchers found that one in five people arrested for these offenses were convicted. African Americans were 15 times more likely to be arrested for these offenses than whites.

"We got into this study because there were two strong sentiments in the community," says Tom Johnson, the director of the private, non-profit group and a former Hennepin County prosecutor.

"One was that arrests were being made and nothing was coming of them -- and that there wasn't any serious attempt to pursue arrests that were being made. The other was that these arrests weren't good arrests in the first place. The police were harrassing, they were involved in fishing expeditions, etc. And so you shouldn't be having this many arrests in the first place."

Johnson says the data supports both views, pointing to the complexity of the Minneapolis crime problem.

Larger view
Image Citizen patrol

Judges, police and city and county prosecutors say the criminal justice system in Minneapolis and Hennepin County is overwhelmed. Court dockets and jails are full. The city attorney's office uses a triage system to identify the strongest cases for prosecution. As a result, many cases are dismissed.

Livability crimes, like the loitering offenses used in the study, are on the rise. Residents in high crime neighborhoods want more arrests and convictions. But many say they don't want to see black men rounded up and arrested for no good reason.

Lots of black men are getting arrested in north Minneapolis. So far this year, police have made 500 loitering arrests in the area bordered by the Mississippi River on the east, and the northern and western suburbs -- that's 30 percent more than all of last year. Police say nearly all the loitering arrests they made target drug selling.

Loitering is considered a livability crime -- meaning the activity makes it difficult for residents who live in the area where it's committed. Police officials say most of the guys residents see every day trying to flag down customers to buy marijuana, make sure to carry a small amount of weed. So if caught, they only get a ticket for a petty misdemeanor.

Dottie Titus lives on Penn Ave. North, where she runs a counseling practice out of her house. Titus says she's losing clients because they're scared by suspected drug dealers and prostitutes who hang out near her house.

"I've seen my number of clients drop off by half since everything picked up again in the spring," she says. "So it certainly is having a detrimental affect on my business. So, it's approaching bankruptcy at times."

On a day recently, Titus prepares to walk through the area wearing a bright red vest, labeled Jordan Neighborhood Patrol. She's gathering with other volunteers near the corner of 26th and Knox Ave. N. Titus says the goal is to create a visible citizen presence as a deterrent to drive-by drug buyers and johns. If the customers go away, she says, the sellers will go with them.

When you're looking at loitering arrests, you have to realize we're dealing with chronic offenders here usually, and they're getting multiple offenses. You've got a court that's trying to deal with that volume, and that's very cumbersome.
- Deputy Chief Tim Dolan

But some say moving the drug dealers out of the way will not solve the conditions which lead some young African American men to hang out on street corners.

Neighborhood activist Sherman Patterson is also part of the citizen patrol. He encounters a group of four young African American men. He tells the young men he can help them get jobs, but they have to stay clean -- meaning they can't sell or use drugs.

Patterson is an African American and a retired Army sergeant. His close-cropped hair and upright posture reflect his years of service in the military. Patterson says it's common for young men to be turned down for jobs because of an arrest record. He knows loitering is bad for the neighborhood. But Patterson says without jobs, some of these young men see selling drugs as their only option.

"A lot of these guys are trying to survive -- most of them. Nine out of 10 are trying to survive. They're not working. It's a socio-economic issue," says Patterson.

Rio is 19 and unemployed. He and his buddies stop to talk to Patterson. Moments before, they were standing around on the next block. In the span of two minutes, two cars drove up to the young men. A few of them walked up to the cars, and then after a few seconds, the cars drove off.

When asked if he knows anyone who sells drugs, Rio says yes.

"I know people. But that's their business." When asked if he sells drugs, Rio says no.

"I don't do nothing. Just trying to get me a job," he says.

The Council on Crime and Justice's Tom Johnson says he understands that arrests might be the best solution to address livability crimes. But he says arrests can lead to an additional burden for the suspect and the community they live in. Johnson says when a person is arrested, even if they are not charged, they still carry an arrest record. That record can be accessed by potential employers or landlords. He says the majority of people arrested for low level offenses are not serious criminals.

"And that arrest record, in and of itself, has consequences for that individual," Johnson says. "Consequences in terms of employability, consequences in terms of housing. And that deepens the problem for the neighborhood. So you need to be judicious about how you use an arrest strategy."

Deputy Police Chief Tim Dolan was the commander of the fourth precinct in north Minneapolis in 2001. He says there are a number of reasons why the gap exists between arrests and convictions -- especially for loitering. And, he says they aren't necessarily the fault of the police officer.

"When you're looking at loitering arrests, you have to realize we're dealing with chronic offenders here, usually," he says. "And they're getting multiple offenses. They're getting multiple tags. And you've got a court that's trying to deal with that volume. And that's very cumbersome."

Dolan says the court wants to clear up the docket, so the defendant pleads to one of the offenses and the others are dropped. Loitering is most commonly dropped, he says, because it's a charge that's harder to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

When asked about the racial disparity in the findings, Dolan is especially critical of the data on driving offenses. He says officers don't have a choice whether or not to arrest or ticket someone for driving without a license. Dolan says he believes the disparity is rooted less in race than economics.

"We continue to widen that gap when we pass legislation that requires mandatory insurance," says Dolan. "We raise the rates for getting your license back after you lose it for an offense. So that creates a whole other scenario, where it seems the people that have the least are being penalized the most."

The Council on Crime and Justice is offering recommendations to address the effects of the low-level conviction gap. Tom Johnson says crime-impacted communities and law enforcement officials need to work together to establish goals on handling livability crimes. He proposes a working group to address the problem.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects