This post was originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Friday November 1st as an op-ed.
Contributed by Bill Pentelovitch, partner in Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand, LLP and is a member of the Board of Directors and Chair of the Law Committee of the ACLU-MN
In a few days, Minneapolis residents will be choosing from a field of over 30 mayoral candidates. While many important and pressing issues will face the new Mayor (the SW Light Rail Corridor, Vikings stadium, jobs, education) one issue that has received less attention but deserves to be one of the new mayor's top priorities should be to reform the Minneapolis Police Department. In addition to changing a police culture that has been exposed as racially biased, the new Mayor should embark on reforms that will reduce the astonishing racial disparities in arrests by MPD officers.
Putting aside the question of whether or not marijuana possession should even be a crime, an area that is especially ripe for reform is the racial disparities in MPD arrests for marijuana possession. Last summer, the ACLU released a report exposing racial disparities in arrest rates for African Americans for marijuana possession which found that, nationwide, arrests for marijuana possession (one of the most common drug-related points of entry into the criminal justice system) are often directed primarily at people of color, despite strong evidence that whites use marijuana at higher rates.
We should be shocked and disturbed by the fact that while nationally, Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, in Hennepin County, they are 9.1 times more likely to be arrested than whites. Even more disturbing, however, is that in the City of Minneapolis Blacks are 11.25 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.. Moreover, the racial disparity increased by 112% between the years 2000 and 2010.
Although the root causes of this massive racial disparity are multifaceted, the new mayor should embark on a careful review of the Minneapolis Police Department to determine whether policing strategies implemented over the last ten years has contributed to the increased disparity. When policing strategies focus on activities which many feel should not be criminal offenses in the first place, sweeping into the criminal justice system people who would not otherwise be there, a climate of mistrust of the police is fostered in those communities. We are all victimized by this situation, because the net effect is that public safety suffers when mistrust leads to avoidance of police interaction, making people less likely to report real crimes or to cooperate with police in the course of criminal investigations. Even when police are targeting areas that have high levels of serious crime, they should prioritize working with communities to address and prevent those crimes rather than saturating the area with enforcement of low-level offenses.
To address these arrest disparities, the new mayor should work with the police department, the city attorney and County Attorney Freeman to refocus police priorities. The new mayor should also work with Chief Harteau to bring about much-needed reforms by the Minneapolis Police Department including adopting a new and stronger policy that strictly prohibits officers from engaging in racial profiling of persons — drivers, passengers, and pedestrians alike. The policy should also unequivocally require that enforcement of state and federal laws be carried out in a responsible and professional manner, without regard to race, ethnicity, or national origin.
Any new policy will also require extra vigilance to ensure that it is fully implemented. Implementation should include rigorous training about the harms of racial profiling and discrimination; investigating all complaints in a thorough and timely manner; impose appropriate disciplinary action that includes additional diversity, sensitivity, and implicit bias training of all officers with sustained bias profiling or other discrimination complaints filed against them; and implementing appropriate discipline for non-compliance with such policies.
The racial disparities that exist for marijuana possession arrests in Minneapolis are only part of the picture when it comes to racial disparities in our criminal justice system, but it is an important piece to the puzzle and one that even in Minneapolis' weak mayor system the new mayor has the ability to address head-on.