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Public defenders in Hennepin County condemn traffic stops that target Black drivers

Minneapolis Star Tribune logo Minneapolis Star Tribune 4/30/2021 Shannon Prather, Star Tribune
a person holding a sign: Juanita Kyle, a public defender of 30 years, held a sign calling for an end to pretextual traffic stops at Friday’s rally outside the Hennepin County Government Center. AARON LAVINSKY • STAR TRIBUNE © Star Tribune/Star Tribune/AARON LAVINSKY • STAR TRIBUNE/Star Tribune/TNS Juanita Kyle, a public defender of 30 years, held a sign calling for an end to pretextual traffic stops at Friday’s rally outside the Hennepin County Government Center. AARON LAVINSKY • STAR TRIBUNE

Hennepin County public defenders, joined by a state legislator, rallied in downtown Minneapolis on Friday to condemn the disproportionate number of Black drivers stopped by police for minor infractions compared to white motorists.

About 50 people showed up for the rally on the steps of the Hennepin County courthouse to protest these traffic stops, which many say criminalizes "Driving while Black." The attorneys, who represent indigent defendants, said this type of pretextual traffic stop led to the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, by Brooklyn Center police on April 11.

a person holding a sign: Juanita Kyle, a public defender of 30 years, held a sign calling for an end to pretextual traffic stops at Friday’s rally outside the Hennepin County Government Center. © Star Tribune/Star Tribune/AARON LAVINSKY • STAR TRIBUNE/Star Tribune/TNS Juanita Kyle, a public defender of 30 years, held a sign calling for an end to pretextual traffic stops at Friday’s rally outside the Hennepin County Government Center.

"The public defenders are standing in solidarity with Daunte Wright, his family and all the Black community. We need to end all racist and pretextual stops," said Tanya Bishop, a Hennepin County public defender.

Bishop said public defenders have a front-row seat to the injustice that plays out thousands of times each year when people of color are pulled over for minor issues including expired tabs, failure to signal a turn far enough in advance or having an item hanging from the rearview mirror.

a person holding a sign: Juanita Kyle, a public defender of 30 years, held a sign calling for an end to pretextual traffic stops at Friday’s rally outside the Hennepin County Government Center. © Star Tribune/Star Tribune/AARON LAVINSKY • STAR TRIBUNE/Star Tribune/TNS Juanita Kyle, a public defender of 30 years, held a sign calling for an end to pretextual traffic stops at Friday’s rally outside the Hennepin County Government Center.

"We want them to know we stand with them. We hear them. We've had enough too," Bishop said.

Wright was shot and killed by former officer Kim Potter during a traffic stop. Potter is charged with manslaughter. Brooklyn Center's former police chief said he believed Potter meant to use her taser.

Brooklyn Center police said they stopped Wright for expired tabs. In a phone call with his mom moments before his death, Wright said he believed he was being stopped for the air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror.

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier,DFL-New Hope, who has introduced a bill that would limit the authority of police officers to stop or detain drivers for low-level equipment violations, also addressed the rally. Frazier said officers who want to report wrongdoing need more whistleblower protections.

"I have spoken with rank-and-file officers. They do want to do the right thing," said Frazier, an attorney and former public defender. "They do want the bad officers out of their ranks."

According to traffic stop data obtained by the public defender's office, Minneapolis police stop and search a disproportionate rate of Black and East African drivers and their vehicles during routine traffic stops compared with other races. Black and East African motorists accounted for more than 5,400 of the 9,600 traffic stops for moving and equipment violations in the city last year.

a person holding a sign: Juanita Kyle, a public defender of 30 years, held a sign calling for an end to pretextual traffic stops at Friday’s rally outside the Hennepin County Government Center. AARON LAVINSKY • STAR TRIBUNE © Star Tribune/Star Tribune/AARON LAVINSKY • STAR TRIBUNE/Star Tribune/TNS Juanita Kyle, a public defender of 30 years, held a sign calling for an end to pretextual traffic stops at Friday’s rally outside the Hennepin County Government Center. AARON LAVINSKY • STAR TRIBUNE

"That is 56.5 % of the total stops. Black and East Africans are only 19 % of the population," Bishop said.

Black drivers are also more often subject to searches to white drivers, according to traffic stop data.

Bishop said the problem also extends to suburban police departments who disproportionately target drivers of color. These stops often lead to a host of injustices.

"These people are being harassed and they are being put through search and seizures," she said.

The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to a request for comment. Last summer, Minneapolis police Cmdr. Charlie Adams said the city should dig deeper into what is driving these disparate rates.

"Let's do a study, let's figure out why that's occurring," he said.

The city was working on such a study with the nonprofit Center for Equity in Policing.

But some proponents have defended minor stops as a critical tool, helping police uncover more serious crimes. Law enforcement often point to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was picked up by police after the bombing for driving without a license tag.

Hennepin County Public Defender Jesse Dong said this isn't just a police problem.

"This is a system being upheld by prosecutors and judges," Dong said.

Bishop said defense attorneys must challenge in court these kinds of traffic stops and other illegal police behavior.

Bishop, who is white, said she's witnessed these disparities in her own family. She typically leaves her work badge hanging from her rearview mirror and said she's never been stopped by police for it. However, her husband, who is Black, borrowed her car and was stopped by police for the windshield obstruction.

"Black people are being disproportionately targeted and policed," Bishop said. "Living, breathing and being Black is not a crime."

Andy Mannix contributed to this report.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037

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