Council repeals spitting, lurking ordinances

The City Council voted 12-1 to repeal the city’s spitting and lurking ordinances Friday morning after a lengthy discussion about the impact of the laws on people of color.

Council President Barb Johnson (Ward 4), who represents neighborhoods in North Minneapolis, was the sole no vote. Before the Council took a vote on repealing the lurking ordinance she said she was concerned about taking away tools for law enforcement and what ordinances might be next in line for repeal.

Johnson also suggested people “tone down the rhetoric” and stop making comparisons of Minneapolis to Ferguson — a comment that angered community activists in attendance. 

Council Members Cam Gordon and Blong Yang authored the proposals to repeal the ordinances. They argued, along with other Council members, that the ordinances are ineffective ways to combat crime, are rarely used and disproportionately target people of color. The lurking ordinance also relies on officers speculating about a person’s intent, which invites bias, they said.

Yang said public safety remains his top priority.

“Repealing the two ordinances is not us giving criminals more space to be criminals,” he said. “Repealing the two ordinances is not a license for people to spit and lurk. However, repealing the two ordinances will make us a better city, one Minneapolis, what we strive for.”

He said it’s uncertain whether the lurking ordinance would be found constitutional today and said someone charged with lurking could likely be charged with a more serious offence.

“Therefore, the hands of law enforcement are not tied simply because they can no longer arrest for lurking. There are other tools that can be used to accomplish a similar result without the potential for arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of a difficult-to-understand ordinance,” he said.

City Council Vice President Elizabeth Glidden said the issue is part of a larger national debate about what to do about a flawed criminal justice system. “Where the rub always comes is what change are we willing to make,” she said. 

She said there’s pressure to keep laws regardless of their effectiveness for “fear of being soft on crime.”

Repealing the ordinances sends the message that city leaders are committed to updating the city’s code and building trust in the criminal justice system, she said. 

Gordon unsuccessfully tried to repeal lurking in 2008. 

“We need to have a deeper cultural change,” he said. “We need to have a communication and understanding with one another and that’s how we’re really going to make a change.” 

He said he’s committed to keeping the city safe and downtown a thriving place, referencing a number of efforts underway to engage youth downtown. 

Gordon said Minneapolis can be a leader among cities across the country in addressing civil rights issues of today much like the city was when Hubert H. Humphrey was mayor in the 1940s.

Mayor Betsy Hodges also released a statement in support of the Council’s vote to repeal the ordinances. 

“These two ordinances are antiquated, unnecessary, and unfairly affect people of color in our community,” she said. “It’s about time we got them off the books. I thank  the Council for moving forward and taking this important next step to make changes that help enable more equitable outcomes.”  

According to a report prepared by Gordon and Yang, between 2011 and 2014, more than two-thirds of people arrested or ticketed for lurking were people of color. The ordinance defined lurking as the following:  “no person, in any public or private place, shall lurk, lie in wait or be concealed with intent to commit any crime or unlawful act.”

Police issued 29 tickets for spitting from 2011 and 2014. As for race, 13 were black, one white and race was not disclosed for the rest of the tickets.

The ACLU recently released a report showing significant racial disparities in arrests for low-level crimes like lurking in Minneapolis. 

Before voting on repealing the spitting ordinance, the Council voted against a motion authored by Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) that would have made spitting a petty misdemeanor that carries a $50 fine. She said she supports decriminalizing the offenses, but said she heard from many constituents who had concerns about repealing the ordinances. 

“We need to say something a little bit louder than please don’t spit on the street,” she said.

University of St. Thomas Law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, the newly elected president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, said she was disturbed by Council President Johnson’s comments and believes it’s time for a leadership change on the Council.

“We are trying to push for one Minneapolis, which means a united Minneapolis where every member of the city feels welcome,” she said. “That includes poor people, people of color, people who are homeless along with residents of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. And right now we have a divided Minneapolis — a tale of two cities.” 

As for next steps, Levy-Pounds said she has pushed for a task force to be convened to take a “comprehensive look at criminal justice reform” in the city — one that includes people of color who live in areas that have a heavy police presence. 

The Minneapolis Downtown Council issued a statement after the vote raising concerns about the potential consequences of repealing the ordinances: “Contrary to the assertions of proponents, eliminating laws defining an expected level of conduct that help insure public safety throughout Minneapolis will not solve the deeply rooted challenges of bias in our criminal justice system. Instead, we may find that the ripple effects from such changes simply undermine the security of individuals who live, work and visit here.”

The Downtown Council urged city leaders to consider “next steps carefully” and conduct “a careful, thorough and fact-based examination of ways the justice system can be reformed to insure fairness while simultaneously maintaining the highest possible level of safety throughout the city.” 

Several community organizations supported repealing the laws, including Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and Neighborhood Organizing for Change. 

In a statement from Black Lives Matter, Miski Noor said: “Today, the Minneapolis City Council has moved towards increased racial equity in Minneapolis with the repeals of spitting and lurking ordinances. However, this is just one step in the right direction; we need comprehensive criminal justice reform, instead of a system that just instead criminalizes black and brown bodies.”