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Discrimination documented in Minnesota traffic stop study

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ST. PAUL, Minn. - A report based on a survey of data from participating cities and counties in the state proves that racial profiling exists in some areas.

"Law enforcement officers stopped American Indian, black and Latino drivers at greater rates than white drivers, and found contraband as a result of searches of American Indians, blacks and Latinos at a lower rate than white drivers," the report stated.

The survey was based on nearly 200,000 traffic stops in 2002, and provides a level of concern for law enforcement departments in the state, officials said.

The Council on Crime and Justice and the Institution race and Poverty of the University of Minnesota Law School conducted and compiled the survey and data.

The only tribal entity that participated in the survey was the Leech Lake Reservation and Public Safety. Director Stephen Day had not read the report, so would offer no comment.

The counties and cities that participated in the study were required to maintain data for all traffic stops.

"Across all jurisdictions, American Indians were stopped at a slightly greater rate than whites (9.2 percent compared to 8.3 percent). Once stopped, American Indians were subjected to discretionary searches more than three times as often as whites (9.6 percent to 3.1 percent)," the report noted.

An officer that made a stop was instructed to record why the stop was made, based on five options: dispatched, driving violation, equipment violation, registration violation or other. They were also asked to indicate the ethnicity of the driver if they knew it.

The purpose of the categories was to determine if subjective or purposeful stops were more prevalent among the non-Indian or non-white community for small equipment violations and other minor reasons. The finding was that American Indians are stopped at least 10 percent more than non-Indians or whites for the "other" category, which indicates a subjective reason, and American Indians have a 10 percent lower rate of driving violations than non-Indians.

While American Indian drivers are stopped at a higher percentage than the greater population average for subjective reasons, the rate of driving, equipment, registration violations is 10 percent lower than the greater population.

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An explanation in the report indicates that because American Indians are stopped for subjective reasons, the rate of issued warrants is less because the reason did not justify the issuance of the warrant.

American Indians in Minnesota, however, are stopped at a higher rate for all other categories than the total population with the exception of driving violations.

The data show that American Indians in Minnesota were arrested at a much higher rate than any other group after a traffic stop. The total population had a 4.4 percent average, while American Indians were arrested 14.14 percent of the time; Asians 3.26 percent, blacks 7.81 percent, Latinos 7.96 percent and whites 3.5 percent.

Discretionary searches, although performed more frequently for people of color in Minnesota, turned up less contraband than those searches conducted for white drivers.

Consent searches, those that have the driver's written permission, are required in certain jurisdictions in Minnesota. St. Paul is one example. The reason behind this is more discretionary searches were noted in the past for people of color. Officers may search drivers or others in a vehicle as a safety measure before arrest or placement in a squad car.

American Indians were searched more frequently in all jurisdictions, but the highest searches occurred in the cities located in the center of the state, suburbs of the Twin Cities and in smaller cities. American Indian populations are highest in the central cities, where the majority of reservations are located.

"Hit rate" is the term used when contraband is found. "When the hit rate in discretionary searches is lower for one racial/ethnic group than another in a jurisdiction, it suggest that officers are subjecting members of that group to searches more often than is warranted by the likelihood that they are in possession of contraband," the report stated.

The report recommended that more community education and involvement is needed to further the study. Elected officials also need to have a working knowledge of the study. Community forums and an examination of departmental policies and practices are also recommended, with emphasis on the wide variances in practices relating to stops and searches. Continued collection of data is also recommended.

What is noted by law enforcement and other officials is the known fact that across the country American Indians are affected by racial profiling at a higher rate than other groups, based on percentage of the population, or per capita.

South Dakota, Minnesota's neighbor that houses nine reservations with American Indians representing 8.3 percent of the population, does not track or collect data. Anecdotal information does indicate a propensity for a higher rate of stops for such things as dangling objects, low inflated tires and other minor infractions, which could result in a search for outstanding warrants for not just the driver but for all passengers, usually with a warrant issued.

The South Dakota state-tribal relations committee of the legislature has dealt with the issue of racial profiling and bills introduced in the past two sessions have met with failure.