ACLU report reveals stark racial disparities in low-level arrests

A still from an ACLU video featured as part of its "Picking Up the Pieces" report. Credit:

A new American Civil Liberties Union report based on arrest data from January 2012 to September 2014 documents significant racial disparities in low-level arrests in Minneapolis.

The report, “Picking Up the Pieces: Policing in America, a Minneapolis Case Study,” shows that black people in Minneapolis were 8.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for low-level offenses and Native Americans were 8.6 times more likely to be arrested. The report analyzed 96,000 arrests by police officers for low-level crimes, such as trespassing, lurking, disorderly conduct and consuming in public.

As for youth, blacks were 5.8 times more likely to be arrested for low-level crimes and Native Americans 7.7 times more likely to be arrested than whites. Black youth were also more likely to be cited with curfew violations. Of the 33 children under 10 cited with the offense, 20 were black.

Most of the low-level arrests analyzed by the ACLU were concentrated in neighborhoods in North Minneapolis, downtown and South Minneapolis. (Map shown below.) 

White residents make up about 64 percent of the city’s population while black residents make up about 19 percent and Native Americans 2 percent.

“Minneapolis police show the same patterns of racial bias that we’re seeing across the country and that demands reform,” said Emma Andersson, staff attorney with the ACLU, in a statement. “In Minneapolis, the eyes of the law look at Blacks and Native Americans differently than whites. The resulting injustices — more fees and fines, more time in jail, more criminal records — hurt Minneapolitans and undermine public safety.”

The ACLU has also produced a short video (shown above) to go with its report sharing thoughts from black youth who have had encounters with the police.

The report has a series of recommendations for the Minneapolis Police Department as well, including strengthening the department’s ban on racial profiling, making sure officers aren’t rewarded for the number of low-level arrests and stops, establishing an empowered civilian review authority that has the power to discipline police officers and establish a pre-arrest diversion program for young people and the homeless, among other things.  

Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said the organization “commends” Police Chief Janeé Harteau for implementing police bias training, but more needs to be done. 

“We urge the chief and other policymakers to engage in the sweeping reform necessary to correct the extreme racial disparities documented in this analysis,” he said. 

Harteau said the numbers in the ACLU report “speak for themselves” but require context during an interview with MPR News’ Tom Weber on Thursday morning. 

She said police have focused patrols in high crime areas of the city and targeted low-level offenses as well in those areas.

She said she was startled by the high number of people arrested in the city for not having a driver’s license. There are about 15,000 arrests a year related to drivers not having a valid license.

Harteau noted that there isn’t a driving school facility in the city and it’s challenging for low-income residents to secure the requisite training for a license.

“Poverty is at the fundamental core of all of this,” she said.

The police chief also noted that officers are prioritizing building positive relationships with residents, such as building Little Free Libraries for the community.

She also said that while it’s important to continue the discussion on what to do about biased policing, officers doing good work in the community need to be supported as well.

“Generally speaking officers are a little challenged right now,” she said during the MPR interview. “They are feeling less than supported. They are frustrated with the negative publicity of law enforcement officers in this country.”

Mayor Betsy Hodges said the report is “another reminder of the work that we have in front of us.” 

“I ran on the vision of building One Minneapolis, a city where your success and your safety is not determined by your class, race, or zip code,” she said in a statement. “I am committed to closing every harmful gap — safety, health, education, income, housing, and employment — where outcomes are worse for people of color than white people.

She said she’s committed to continue working with other city leaders and the police department to “create meaningful change.”

The ACLU report begins with a narrative about four Somali youth who were pulled over by a white police officer in South Minneapolis near a YMCA on March 18.

Hamza Jeylani, 17, recorded the incident on his cell phone.

Minneapolis Police Officer Rod Weber ordered Jeylani and his friends out of the car and was recorded as saying the following: “Plain and simple, if you f*** with me, I’m going to break your legs before you get the chance to run.”

Jeylani asks why he’s being arrested and Weber responds: “Because I feel like arresting you.”

Police had suspected the teens of stealing the car, but Jeylani said he feels they were racially profiled.

“The driver had license and insurance, and that was his car,” he said.

Harteau said the conduct of the officer remains under investigation. 

Anthony Newby, executive director of North Minneapolis-based Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said the city has become the “new South.”

“We’ve become a premiere example of how to systematically oppress people of color,” he said in the ACLU report. “And again, it’s done through our legal system, and so low-level offenses, as an example, are just one of the many, many ways that Minnesota has perfected the art of suppressing and subjugating people of color.”

Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke said the low-level offenses can have big consequences for people.

He cited an example of someone who misses work at Taco Bell because they were in jail after being arrested for having their driver’s license suspended in the “Picking up the Pieces” report.

“Because they missed [work], they’re now behind in their child support,” he said. “Because they’re behind in their child support, the county attorney’s office will try to hold them in contempt, to hassle them to get them to pay child support. And so it’s really a very ineffective way of dealing with human behavior.”