ACLU: Minneapolis Police Are Racist, Should Do Less Policing

The Minneapolis Star Tribune cites a report by the American Civil Liberties Union on race and law enforcement in Minneapolis:

People of color are more likely to be arrested for low-level crimes in Minneapolis compared to their white counterparts, according to a detailed study released Thursday of thousands of arrests made by city police. …

Picking up the Pieces: Policing in America, a Minneapolis Case Study shows that blacks were 8.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for minor offenses, which are violations that are punished by fines of $3,000 or less and/or a year or less in jail. Native Americans were 8.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested. Among young people ages 17 and under, black youth were 5.8 times more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses than white youth; for Native Americans, this figure was 7.7.

Low-level offenses include dozens of crimes such as driving an uninsured vehicle, possession of marijuana in a motor vehicle, panhandling, consuming alcohol in public, public urination, and many more. The ACLU report is here. This chart sets out the basic data:


Observers of the urban scene probably won’t be shocked by these numbers. But one thing may already have jumped out at you: while the ACLU report goes on and on about “people of color” being victimized by the police, not all people of color are, apparently, created equal. Note that the disparity between population and arrests is greater for Asians than for African-Americans and Indians, only in the opposite direction. Asians account for 6% of the population of Minneapolis, but only 1% of the low-level arrests.

Why might that be? Astonishingly, neither the ACLU report nor the Star Tribune story on it ever mentions the Asian “disparity,” even though the ACLU casually assumes that “[t]he numbers show a startling disparity in the way police enforce low-level offenses.” Would the ACLU have us believe that the Minneapolis police are conspiring to cover up low-level crimes by Asians? Presumably not: it is obvious that Asians are “under-represented” among such arrests because they rarely commit such crimes.

But if that is true, the whole racism hypothesis falls apart. How do we know that blacks and Indians are not “over-represented” in low-level arrests because they commit a disproportionate number of such crimes? In fact, it is a well-known and easily documented fact that these demographic groups are over-represented in the criminal population. The ACLU report never mentions this uncomfortable fact.

The report makes just one effort to show that the relatively large number of low-level arrests of African-Americans is due to racism:

One of the more interesting disparities the ACLU’s analysis of low-level arrests by the Minneapolis Police Department uncovered was the greater likelihood of Black drivers being arrested for what we call “active driving violations” during summer daylight hours than at night. The category includes offenses like careless driving, failure to use a turn signal, speeding, and unlawful acceleration.

The Black/white racial disparities for active driving violation arrests in June, July, and August were worse during daylight hours and lower at night through the early morning. At 2 p.m., when officers are more likely able to identify the race of drivers before pulling them over, a Black person was over 9 times more likely to be arrested for an active driving violation than a white person.

By contrast, at 3 a.m., when visibility is limited and officers are less likely to be able to identify the race of drivers before pulling them over, the Black/white racial disparity is far lower, with Black drivers twice as likely to be arrested. This suggests racial profiling by law enforcement.


Actually, this chart suggests the opposite of the ACLU’s interpretation. I don’t know why the “disparity” in active driving arrests is four times as great at 2 p.m. as at 8 a.m., but it isn’t because the police officer can see the race of the driver. Eight o’clock in the morning, in Minnesota in the summer, is broad daylight. A police officer can see the driver as well at 8:00 as at 2:00. So whatever the explanation might be, that isn’t it.

The report also includes data strongly suggesting that the racism hypothesis is wrong. A low-level arrest can end in one of two ways: the offender can be booked and processed through jail, or he can be cited and released. If one assumes that Minneapolis officers are wrongly arresting African-Americans out of racial animus, then we should also find that African-Americans are treated worse post-arrest. But the report admits that this is not the case:

[A]lthough Black people were arrested for low-level offenses at far higher rates than white people, of those who were arrested, there was not a significant difference in how frequently police officers booked Black arrestees and white arrestees. It’s one data point where the police treatment of white and Black people in Minneapolis was relatively the same.


The ACLU’s conclusion: “to be a person of color in the city is to be over-policed.” So how does the ACLU propose to remedy Minneapolis’s disparity in low-level arrests? In large part, through less policing.

The ACLU’s recommended reforms include:

* Ensuring that MPD officers are evaluated in a way that does not reward them based on the number of stops and low-level arrests they make; and that they face discipline for unnecessary uses of force;

* Making information public about what methods are used to determine when and if an officer will face punishment;

* Improving MPD’s current policy that explicitly bans racial profiling and other discriminatory behaviors;

* Prohibiting officers from asking people if they can search them if they have no legal reason;

* Keeping data, and making it publicly available on a regular basis, in a format that makes it more accessible and includes information from all interactions with the police including ones that do not result in an arrest, but were merely suspicious person stops, frisks, or searches;

* Ensuring that raw data is analyzed by an independent party on a regular basis to identify disparities that negatively affect communities of color or other marginalized communities;

* Establishing an empowered civilian review body that has authority to discipline officers when necessary…

You get the drift: ease off on offenders and crack down on the police, the approach that has worked so well in Baltimore. This is foolishness, but foolishness that perhaps follows inevitably if you assume that every disparity (or rather, every convenient disparity) is per se evidence of race discrimination.

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