In a fascinating case of addressing impact rather than intention, district attorney in Minneapolis have dismissed felony marijuana charges against 47 people, 46 of whom are black, and halted future low-level sting operations. The racial disparity was brought to light in late May, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports, and shockingly, the powers that be took swift action.
The extraordinary turnaround came after Hennepin County's chief public defender, Mary Moriarty, contacted Mayor Jacob Frey to complain about what looked like blatant racial profiling. Frey then directed Chief Medaria Arradondo to stop the stings.
"I believe strongly that marijuana should be a lowest-level enforcement priority and that it should be fully legalized at the state level," Frey said in a statement Thursday.
The arrests, according to officials, were mostly for one to two grams of weed, costing $20 or less. The operation appears to have been a simple one, wherein undercover cops approached “random” folks on the street and inquired as to whether they could help them secure a little herb.
The “random” folks just all happened to be black. Except for one.
Using undercover officers posing as buyers, they arrested 47 people for selling marijuana on Hennepin between 5th and 6th streets.
The Hennepin County Public Defender's office determined that 46 of those arrested were black. All were charged as felonies. Some were put in diversion programs, some were convicted and at least one man went to prison.
Moriarty said that the only white person arrested was not approached by police, but had himself approached an undercover officer about selling some marijuana.
Yes, that’s right—the only white guy actually outed himself to police.
Prosecutors claim that they had no idea that there was a pattern until Moriarty’s office brought it to their attention.
"These undercover drug stings by the Minneapolis Police Department occurred without our knowledge," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a statement. "Because they occurred over a period of months and were distributed to about a half-dozen of our attorneys for prosecution, we did not detect any pattern."
Minneapolis Police have complied with the mayor’s directive.
Issuing what he called "a community call to action," Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced Thursday that his department will no longer conduct stings for certain low-level marijuana crimes.
"Mayor Frey has directed us, has directed me as chief, we will discontinue specific low-level marijuana enforcement, and I agree with the mayor's decision," Arradondo told reporters.
While saying his officers were simply carrying out a legal and professional process, Arradondo acknowledges that a disproportionate number of those arrested for dealing or possessing small amounts of pot are people of color.
Of course, cops tend to defend cops, so Arradondo was careful to deny any racial profiling took place.
In a letter to Arradondo on May 29, Moriarty wrote, "A review of the cases received by our office strongly suggests a trend of racial profiling under the guise of a 'livability' detail."
"While the intention was good, it had an unintended consequence," Arradondo said.
Arradondo defended his officers, saying they were acting professionally and not targeting black people because of their race.
As research continues to overwhelmingly prove what black people have been saying all along—namely that jarringly unfair racial disparities in both arrest and incarceration rates are widespread—new approaches to law enforcement continue to emerge.
In October 2016, Gov. Mark Dayton created a council of law enforcement and community leaders to recommend ways to improve relations between police and communities of color.
The group of more than two dozen leaders is working on ways to improve how law enforcement interacts with and serves communities of color.
Better oversight of police through body cameras and civilian review boards, broader implementation of restorative justice practices to help people avoid fines and jail, and increased training to help police de-escalate tense situations are at the top of the wish list for many community activists.
These changes literally cannot come quickly enough. Hardly a day goes by where video footage doesn’t pop up showing the world just how brutal our nation’s police officers can be toward the very people they’re sworn to protect and serve; simultaneously, the Commander of Cheese continues to frame peaceful protests against that brutality as attacks against patriotism, the military, and the American way. ICE continues to spiral out of control.
With all of that in mind, it’s refreshing to see Minneapolis do this small, but right thing. For the 47 people facing felonies for dime bags, it’s a life-changing policy change. Literally.