In This City, Blacks Are Nearly 9 Times More Likely to Be Arrested for Minor Crimes

A new American Civil Liberties Union investigation finds deep racial disparities in low-level arrests in Minneapolis.
(Photo: Matthew Palmer/Getty Images)
May 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Adam Sege is a journalist who has worked for the Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, McClatchy Newspapers’ Washington Bureau, and The Star, of South Africa. He lives in Chicago.

Minneapolis police in recent years have arrested black people at nearly nine times the rate of white people, relative to their share of the population, for low-level offenses such as driving without a license, loitering, carrying an open container of alcohol, and trespassing, according to a new American Civil Liberties Union investigation.

The investigation is documented in the report Picking Up the Pieces: A Minneapolis Case Study. The ACLU analyzed nearly 97,000 low-level Minneapolis Police Department arrests between January 2012 and September 2014. Generally, low-level offenses are those for which someone can be sentenced to one year or less of incarceration or a $3,000 fine.

“There are nearly 200 offenses that we looked at here,” Emma Andersson, the report’s lead author, told TakePart. “The disparities exist almost across the board.”

The investigation comes as the U.S. is engaged in a deep debate about law enforcement’s relationship with the country’s most vulnerable citizens, particularly blacks and Latinos. The debate has escalated in recent months, especially following the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Ferguson, Missouri. Last weekend’s acquittal of a Cleveland police officer who fatally shot two black motorists prompted demonstrations. The ACLU’s investigation offers a vivid local snapshot of what’s driving much of the tension between law enforcement and citizens.

The investigation also found that Native Americans were arrested at a rate more than eight times higher than that of whites. There were also stark differences when the arrests were broken down by neighborhood. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau said that makes sense. Patterns of poverty and crime—not policing—are the main cause of the discrepancies, she told the station.

Noting that there had been two shootings in the city the previous night, she said the department has a responsibility to place more officers in high-crime areas than low-crime ones. “And so it’s not surprising to me that you’re going to have lower-level offenses at a higher rate in an area where officers are in an effort to combat violent crime.”

Still, she said, the ACLU report is a reminder that the department has areas where it can improve. The report praised some of the police department’s new initiatives to build trust with citizens, including an implicit bias training program for officers and a program that equips them with body cameras.

Many of the high-profile fatal police-citizen interactions, Andersson noted, started as arrests for the same type of low-level offenses analyzed in the Minneapolis report. Even though the vast majority of these arrests do not result in the use of force, each one can leave a lasting negative impact, even for someone who is never convicted.

The ACLU has also found racial disparity in street stops at police departments in Chicago, New York, and other cities. The findings in Minneapolis should be yet another cause for alarm, Andersson said. “It should show all of us that what’s needed in police reform is not tinkering around the edges. We need radical changes, because these are deep and pervasive problems.”

The report concludes with a list of other steps the department can take to address some of the group’s concerns. These include the establishment of a civilian review board that can discipline officers and prohibiting officers from requesting consent for a search without legal justification.