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KARE 11 Investigates: New data shows MPD searches Black drivers at 29 times the rate of whites after minor stops

A KARE 11 analysis reveals huge racial disparities continue in Minneapolis for minor traffic stops and searches despite reforms promised after George Floyd’s death.

MINNEAPOLIS — New data shows that the majority of drivers pulled over this year by Minneapolis police for minor equipment violations are Black, a KARE 11 analysis has found.

Black drivers account for more than half of those stops so far in 2021 despite making up only about 20% of the city’s residents, according to city data.

Whites, who make up about 64% of the city’s population, have been pulled over in just 18% of similar stops this year. 

That means Minneapolis police have stopped Black drivers for violations like expired tabs or broken tail lights at nine times the rate of white drivers. 

The disparity is even more dramatic if you consider how often police searched the vehicles of Black drivers after traffic stops for equipment violations.

Records show Black drivers were involved in more than 70% of the searches overall – six times more than searches done on white drivers.

When you factor in the relative population size of each group the gap is even greater. Since 2017, Black drivers have been searched at 29 times the rate of whites, according to a KARE 11 analysis of city data.

The disparity in traffic stops has continued despite promises by city leaders to address racial discrimination in policing in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year.

Worsening problem?

KARE 11’s analysis of city traffic stop data found racial disparities have only gotten worse since 2017.

In fact, the percentage of Blacks stopped for equipment violations has shot up – from 54% in 2017 to 62% so far in 2021.

The gap between Black drivers being pulled over compared to whites may be even greater than the data shows.

Minneapolis police have been increasingly marking race as “unknown” after stopping a driver, doing so about half the time this year compared to only a quarter in 2016.

Jay Wong, a Hennepin County Public Defender who has done his own analysis on Minneapolis traffic stops, said the data illustrates a clear problem.

“Look outside,” he said. “Nationwide we have an issue where we are disproportionately getting Black men and women into the criminal justice and into prisons. The whole pipeline. And that whole pipeline starts at the initial police contact with officers.”

Stopped and searched 

The racial gap becomes a canyon when you analyze the number of times a traffic stop for equipment violations results in a search of the vehicle.

KARE 11’s own analysis of city data confirmed that Black drivers are stopped for equipment violations and searched far more often than whites in Minneapolis.

Black drivers have accounted for 77% of those searches since 2017 – about three out of every four.

In contrast, white drivers accounted for only 12% of the searches.

That makes the risk that Blacks would be stopped and searched for equipment violations 29 times that of whites.

That is still true so far this year. Records show 32 Black drivers have been stopped and searched, compared to only one white driver.

Not only are traffic stops involving Black drivers more likely to result in vehicle searches, Wong’s analysis shows that MPD searches of Black drivers were often fruitless. He found most drivers were let go after nothing was found.

Credit: KARE 11
Jay Wong says more black drivers are being stopped and searched.

“More Black drivers are being stopped, more Black drivers are being searched, and Black drivers aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong. Things aren’t being found,” Wong said. “To me one of those reasons is that they are on a fishing expedition.”

A Minneapolis police spokesman did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Pretext traffic stops

Critics claim police often use minor violations as an excuse – or “pretext” – to look for other issues.

They cite the 2016 death of Philando Castile. He was shot and killed after being pulled over for a broken light.

Records show it was a pretext stop.

KARE 11 obtained a copy of police radio traffic showing an officer told dispatchers the real reason he was pulling Castile over was because he thought he looked like a suspect in an armed robbery because he had “a wide-set nose.

Credit: KARE 11
Police scanner audio showed officers stopping Castile because of his "wide set nose."

Castile had no connection to the crime for which he was stopped.

The issue was highlighted again last month when Brooklyn Center police stopped Daunte Wright for expired license tabs.

When officers discovered Wright had an outstanding warrant, they tried to arrest him. He was shot and killed when an officer said she pulled her gun instead of her Taser when he tried to escape.

Traffic stop data for Brooklyn Center is not available.

But records for nearby Brooklyn Park show that half of all those stopped were Black drivers over the last five years, even though they make up a quarter of the city’s population.                                                                                            

Reform attempt

The overall disparity in traffic stops – and Wright’s recent death – prompted Rep. Cedric Frazier, a DFL legislator from New Hope, to put forward a bill that would ban traffic stops for minor violations like having a broken taillight or expired vehicle tabs registration.

Frazier believes it’s likely Daunte Wright would be alive today if officers were forbidden from being able to stop him for expired tabs.

Credit: KARE 11
Rep. Cedric Frazier introduced a bill to limit traffic stops for minor violations.

“They could have mailed him a letter saying you had these expired tabs,” he said.

However, Frazier said his bill would still allow police to pull drivers over if a license plate check reveals an arrest warrant, like the one Wright had, or a driver’s behavior creates a threat to human life.

“This is absolutely to minimize … those minor traffic violations and minimum impact stuff to decrease those interactions that could lead to dangerous and deadly outcomes,” Frazier said.

Frazier’s bill passed the House as part of the larger public omnibus bill, but the GOP-controlled Senate refused to hold hearings on it. An aide for Frazier said the issue will be negotiated during the conference committee. 

KARE 11 thanks University of Professors Elizabeth Wrigley-Field and Rob Warren for their assistance with this analysis.