Racial profiling study presented at local meetings

Itasca County resident Gerald White claims to have been stopped by law enforcement 15 times in a little over a year. He recalled that during one week - when his old Toyota was missing its back license plate - he was stopped three times. However, ...

Itasca County resident Gerald White claims to have been stopped by law enforcement 15 times in a little over a year. He recalled that during one week - when his old Toyota was missing its back license plate - he was stopped three times. However, he never received a ticket.

White, an American Indian, suspects that the real reason he's been pulled over so many times has more to do with the color of his skin than actual driving violations.

"I hear stories about it all the time in the community, but what is being done?" he said. "I used to have a lot of respect for law enforcement officers, but that respect has diminished."

A study on racial profiling in Minnesota released in 2003 and presented Wednesday by University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield concluded that racial profiling among law enforcement officers is a problem statewide.

Orfield presented the study at three different venues Wednesday - Leech Lake Tribal College, the American Indian Resource Center and the People's Church. The presentations were sponsored by the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project (ACLU-MN), Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the AIRC.


The report, titled "The Minnesota Statewide Racial Profiling Study," was commissioned by the state Legislature and was a joint project of the Council of Crime and Justice and the U of M's Institute on Race and Poverty. Sixty-five jurisdictions, including the cities of Bemidji, Cass Lake and Walker and Beltrami and Cass counties, volunteered to participate in the study.

From Jan. 1, 2002 to Dec. 31, 2002, the participating agencies kept records of the number of traffic stops; the race, age and gender of the driver; whether a search was conducted; and if contraband was found during the search.

In his afternoon presentation to an audience of more than 100 at the AIRC, Orfield outlined the results of the study, which can be found in its entirety on the Internet at It concluded that throughout the state, ethnic minorities were stopped by law enforcement significantly more often than Caucasians. Further, the study found that ethnic minorities were searched more often than Caucasians, though searches of Caucasians were more likely to result in the seizure of contraband.

Bemidji's results showed that American Indians accounted for 11.5 percent of the traffic stops, though they make up just 9.3 percent of the city's population. The study also found that American Indians in Bemidji were searched at twice the rate of Caucasians, though law enforcement was one-third more likely to find contraband during a search involving a Caucasian.

"The findings suggest a strong likelihood that racial and ethnic bias play a role in traffic stop policies and practices in Minnesota," Orfield said.

He added that the results of the 2003 study found that Minnesota was consistent with the rest of the nation in regards to racial profiling.

"There was a time when Minnesota was a leader in civil rights," he said. "Now we are just right smack in the middle."

During his presentation, Orfield described the recommendations made in the report to help lower Minnesota's racial profiling statistics.


"One of the clearest and most striking requests and desires in this was to get the community involved," he said. "Let the data be public, speak about it at public forums."

He said it is important to get state and local officials involved, as well.

"These are things that need to be discussed by political officials," he said. "Sometimes things happen and continue to happen because we don't talk about them and we don't talk about them with elected officials."

Other recommendations that Orfield presented included a more thorough examination of law enforcement policies and practices, more state and local assistance for individuals who are concerned about racial profiling, and ongoing data collection.

Audrey Thayer of the Bemidji Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union urged individuals who feel they have been victims of racial profiling to file a complaint with the ACLU.

"We have to ask people to buck up and (file a complaint) or things won't change," she said. "Don't be an armchair activist - follow through and have a voice."

Audience members were allowed to ask questions and make comments during the open forum segment of the presentation. Some told stories of incidents of racial profiling that they had experienced or heard about. Others offered suggestions to help eliminate racial profiling.

Marchellos Williams, a senior at Bemidji State University, said that law enforcement agencies should pursue hiring more ethnic minorities as a way to reduce racial profiling and make citizens of color more comfortable with officers.


"It might ease their mind once in a while if a black officer comes to the car," he said.

The Bemidji Police Department currently has two American Indian officers on the force. Orfield noted that the race of the officers was not a factor that was analyzed in the racial profiling study.

Another audience member said that one of the problems is that people of different races rarely intermingle. She suggested that encouraging people to spend time with those of other races could lead to better understanding and fewer instances of racial profiling.

Orfield agreed. "Studies have shown that when people do have the chance to get to know each other and have contact, levels of racial disparities go down."

Some of the speakers and audience members commented that there not enough law enforcement officials in attendance at the forum. Thayer noted that three Leech Lake Tribal Police officers went to the morning presentation and she hoped that more area officers would attend the evening session at the People's Church.

"I have extended invitations to all of them," she said. "We want everybody to come to the table."

Future communication and constant dialogue among citizens and law enforcement were highlighted at the forum. Several audience members said they were pleased with the large turnout at the afternoon forum and hoped that discussions on racial profiling and other racial issues will continue in the community.

"I'm so encouraged to come to a forum like this and see the people who are here," said Kathleen Annette, director of the area Indian Health Service. "If we make a commitment that there's going to be a change, it's going to be slow, but we're going to be committed to it."

What To Read Next
Get Local