Listen: Traffic stops (Yuen/Feshir)

MPR’s Laura Yuen and Rahim Feshir report on disproportionately high traffic stop numbers of minority drivers. They present data and narratives on one of the most common interactions between police and the public.

When a St. Anthony police officer pulled over Philando Castile in early July 2016, it was a ritual the 32-year-old black man knew all too well. Before that night, officers had stopped him at least 45 other times on Minnesota roads. Castile was shot and killed that day by the officer who pulled him over. His death has focused attention on bias and racial profiling of law enforcement.


2016 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Investigative - Large Market Radio category

2017 Minnesota Page One Award, first place in Radio - Investigative category


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SPEAKER 1: The police shooting death of Philando Castile, a Black man from Saint Paul, brought attention to an everyday occurrence in this country, the traffic stop. Castile was shot in his car in July just minutes after a Saint Anthony police officer pulled him over. African-American drivers here and across the nation have long complained of being singled out for driving violations, but the question of who's getting pulled over on Minnesota streets, whether Black, white, or another race, hasn't been widely examined.

MPR News took a deep dive into one suburban police department's traffic stops, Saint Anthony, the same department involved in Castile's shooting. And we found that for years, officers in that department have been ticketing Black drivers disproportionately. Reporters Laura Yuen and Riham Feshir have the story.

LAURA YUEN: It's been nearly four months since Philando Castile was shot during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights and we're still waiting for answers. Among other things, it's not entirely clear why Castile was pulled over for the 46th and final time on July 6.

RIHAM FESHIR: At least two theories have emerged. An unverified audio of a call to dispatch that night, a police officer said Castile's wide-set nose resembled that of a suspect from a nearby robbery.

LAURA YUEN: But Castile's girlfriend, who was riding in the car at the time, points to another reason.

DIAMOND REYNOLDS: The whole thing developed when we were riding down Larpenteur.

LAURA YUEN: That's Diamond Reynolds speaking to reporters the day after the shooting.

DIAMOND REYNOLDS: And we got pulled over what allegedly was supposed to be a broken tail light. When he let us know that we had a broken tail light, he asked us were we aware of it? We said, no.

LAURA YUEN: Broken tail light, we were curious about this. And we found that a lot of research has been done about these kinds of stops.

RIHAM FESHIR: We talked to a guy who's been studying traffic stops for over a decade. His name is Jack McDevitt. He's a professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

LAURA YUEN: He says these equipment stops are prompted by things like broken tail lights, or broken headlights, or when the little lights that shine on your license plate just aren't working. They're minor infractions in which cops have a lot of leeway in whether they pull over the driver.

JACK MCDEVITT (ON PHONE): And that's the area where people feel that if there is racial profiling, it's in that highly discretionary area that police are more likely to stop someone of color.

RIHAM FESHIR: Police officers we talked to say equipment stops are an important tool to get more information. Sometimes they're looking for drugs in the car or maybe more serious crime and want to get a closer look at the driver.

LAURA YUEN: And these stops, known as pretext stops, are perfectly legal.

RIHAM FESHIR: So here's what we wanted to know-- who's being stopped and cited by Saint Anthony police for equipment violations?

LAURA YUEN: Turns out, we don't know much about who's getting stopped, but at least we know who's getting ticketed. The department hasn't kept records of everyone pulled over. But a couple months after Castile was shot, the city announced it will start requiring officers to record the race of everyone they stop.

RIHAM FESHIR: The department has been keeping track of all citations though and that's where we found disparities.

LAURA YUEN: When the city recently released five years of data of all traffic citations in the three suburbs it serves, Saint Anthony, Lauderdale, and Falcon Heights, we took a look at about 650 traffic stops that stemmed from faulty or tinted tail lights, headlights, or license plate lights.

RIHAM FESHIR: And what we found showed a huge imbalance on who's getting ticketed as a result of these equipment stops.

SPEAKER: African-Americans made up 44% of those who were cited, whether it was for the broken taillight or for something else that turned up during the stop, like driving without a valid license or insurance.

RIHAM FESHIR: That's a lot higher than the percentage of Blacks who live in the three largely white suburbs patrolled by Saint Anthony police. Those three cities have an average Black population of 7%.

LAURA YUEN: It's also much higher than the percentage of Blacks who live in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, which is about 12%.

RIHAM FESHIR: City officials declined to sit down and discuss the data with us. But in a series of email exchanges with MPR News, Saint Anthony police Chief Jon Mangseth cautioned against using the traffic arrest reports for a rigorous statistical analysis saying, there's too much discretion in how officers enter information.

LAURA YUEN: And it's true, much of the detail is included in sometimes lengthy narratives that officers write out. But we found that a careful reading of those narratives gave us enough information to sort through the data in a way we found useful.

RIHAM FESHIR: Mangseth also said we can't assume Saint Anthony is an outlier, but national studies say Black drivers are more likely to be stopped in predominantly white suburbs than white drivers. Philando Castile's friend, John Thompson, is a living example.

JOHN THOMPSON: Anytime you have a cop that'll be driving eastbound, you're going west. And you guys just so happen to pass each other, and he looks you dead in the face, and then hurry up, and bust a U-turn, and gets behind you, this is not just a Saint Anthony or Falcon Heights problem. This is like Minnesota problem.

LAURA YUEN: Most African-American drivers we talked to say they've been pulled over many times, but short of the 46 traffic stops experienced by Castile.

RIHAM FESHIR: To some Minnesotans, the fact that Castile died during something as common as a traffic stop makes them believe racial bias had to be in play. Governor Mark Dayton, a white baby boomer born into privilege, has said as much. Protesters got Dayton's attention by camping outside his mansion after the shooting.

LAURA YUEN: They've also held vigils for Castile like this recent one on a crisp fall night.

SPEAKER 2: Say his name.

SPEAKER 3: Philando!

SPEAKER 2: Say his name.

SPEAKER 3: Philando!

SPEAKER 2: Say his name!

SPEAKER 3: Philando!

SPEAKER 2: Say his name!

LAURA YUEN: This was on the side of Larpenteur Avenue near the spot where Castile was killed. Protesters are Black, white Asian, Latino all shivering in their mittens and they're holding up their smartphones like candles. Signs planted along the grass read-- the world is watching Falcon Heights.

SPEAKER 4: (SINGING) There go my sister. Hey! Marching with me.

RIHAM FESHIR: It's one of dozens of rallies and protests that took place all over the Twin Cities after the shooting.

LAURA YUEN: We don't know exactly what led up to the shooting of the 32-year-old school cafeteria supervisor, but we know Castile didn't have a serious criminal history. He was licensed to carry a gun and the vast majority of his encounters with police were limited to traffic stops. It's something he often shared with his mother, Valerie Castile.

VALERIE CASTILE: I was the one upset about it. He didn't get upset about it. And I told him, they're getting behind you. They're running your license plate. And once they figure it out, they're going to pull you over even though you haven't done anything.

RIHAM FESHIR: We wanted to look at some scenarios where Saint Anthony cops had wide discretion to run license plates. So in addition to those equipment stops, we analyzed nearly 600 stops from what officers described as routine or random license plate checks.

LAURA YUEN: So an example could go something like this, an officer is sitting in the parking of, say, a gas station and decides to run the plates of cars coming and going.

RIHAM FESHIR: Or the officer happens to be sitting behind the car of someone at a red light and decides to run the plate.

LAURA YUEN: Here, we found similar disparities. Black drivers were more than likely than whites to be ticketed as a result of these random license plate checks.

RIHAM FESHIR: 41% of these drivers were African-American. Again, they were typically cited for things like driving without a valid license or insurance.

LAURA YUEN: But there are some limitations of the data. All we have are records of actual citations.

RIHAM FESHIR: In other words, we don't have any data on drivers who were pulled over, but got off with just a warning.

LAURA YUEN: Or drivers who had their license plates checked and were never pulled over.

RIHAM FESHIR: So we don't know if we'd see these kinds of racial disparities if we were to look at all drivers who were stopped.

LAURA YUEN: But on the other hand, the disparities within the citation data we do have are even greater than what we've reported.

RIHAM FESHIR: That's because it's not clear how many Latinos were pulled over. For the most part, the city of Saint Anthony has lumped them in with drivers categorized as white.

LAURA YUEN: So the numbers we do have do show huge racial disparities, but they don't show the reason for those disparities. It could be in part due to police bias, but other factors could play into this as well.

RIHAM FESHIR: Lorie Fridell is a criminology professor at the University of South Florida and a police bias expert. And she says, yeah, we need to be cautious about reaching conclusions with limited data.

LAURA YUEN: Still, Fridell says, we have to be aware about the possibility of bias.

RIHAM FESHIR: She says research of police bias shows it's not always explicit. It can be implicit, meaning it's not always obvious.

LORIE FRIDELL: This can happen outside of our conscious awareness even as it impacts our perceptions and our behaviors. So even well-intentioned individuals, including well-intentioned law enforcement, have biases that can impact their perceptions and impact on their behavior with no ill intention.

LAURA YUEN: But in another email to MPR News, Chief Mangseth says it's impossible to draw any valid data-driven conclusions from the arrest reports without also analyzing how factors like poverty might play a role. He also says, we can't assume Saint Anthony is the only city with these disparities without having statewide data to compare and that would be difficult. Minnesota doesn't require police to record race or ethnicity on traffic citations.

RIHAM FESHIR: But even if you can't compare with other communities or factor in poverty, it's hard to ignore what the data show. Black drivers in these communities are getting cited in highly discretionary stops at a rate at least three times higher than the Black population in the surrounding counties.

LAURA YUEN: And such a wide disparity reinforces the perceptions of people who frequent the area. And it's not just for Black drivers like John Thompson who may be driving through, but for white residents like Laura Boisen.

LAURA BOISEN: Yeah, look at these great backyards that we have.

RIHAM FESHIR: Boisen is originally from Iowa. She lives just across the street from open farm fields that give this first-string suburb or rural feel.

LAURA YUEN: Soon after she moved from Minneapolis to Falcon Heights, Boisen became unsettled by what became a familiar sight. On nearby Larpenteur Avenue, she noticed that nearly every time she looked to see a car pulled over by police, the driver was a person of color.

RIHAM FESHIR: Then when her own friends of color came to visit or even roofers working on her house, they were stopped along the way.

LAURA BOISEN: I was starting to warn anyone who came to my house that was a person of color, I warned them about driving in Falcon Heights. I really felt that I needed to warn people because I was having friends and workmen be stopped.

RIHAM FESHIR: Boisen is an Augsburg College professor who has done research on racial bias and she joined the Falcon Heights Human Rights Commission. At a meeting back in 2009, she began asking the Saint Anthony police chief at the time about whether he collected the racial data of motorists his officers stopped on the streets.

LAURA BOISEN: What happened was as I started to ask these questions, the police chief became immediately defensive. And he explained that the Falcon Heights Police Department was not racially profiling and that they were not racist.

LAURA YUEN: We tried contacting then Chief John Ohl several times for this story, but he didn't return our messages. Boisen recalls Ohl said his department didn't, at that time, track the race of drivers cited by police.

RIHAM FESHIR: Boisen tried to press for answers, but she says Ohl kept insisting there was no racial bias among his officers. The discussion went nowhere.

LAURA YUEN: And so Laura Boisen dropped it. It's a decision she can't seem to forgive herself for. And now that Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop, what's going through your mind?

LAURA BOISEN: We could have handled this years ago. We didn't have to wait for this to happen in our community. I would suspect that there are a lot of white residents like me who feel a particular angst and a sense of shame and guilt. We knew this was happening and we didn't do anything. We could have stopped it.

LAURA YUEN: I'm Laura Yuen.

RIHAM FESHIR: And I'm Riham Feshir, Minnesota Public Radio News, Falcon Heights.


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