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Would eliminating low-level offenses stop police shootings?

Newshour Weekend special correspondent Chris Bury reports on new efforts in the Twin Cities of Minnesota to change how and when police interact with residents. In almost an opposite theory to what’s been called “Broken Windows” policing, there is an organized move to eliminate many low-level offenses. This approach raises the question: Would many of the police shootings of young men of color happen, if they were never pulled over or stopped in the first place?

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  • CHRISTOPHER BURY:

    Whatever the exact circumstances that led police to pull over Philando Castile, a broken tail light or the officer's suspicion he resembled a suspect in a robbery, the anger here is fueled by a feeling that Castile died a violent death during a routine police stop primarily because he was a black man.

  • CHRISTOPHER BURY:

    This makeshift memorial marks the spot where Philando Castile died at the hands of police. For Castile, getting pulled over here in a suburb of St. Paul was not at all unusual. Court records show police had stopped him more than fifty times since 2002 for misdemeanors including not having a driver's license and not wearing a seatbelt. Most of those petty offenses were eventually dismissed.

  • RON HARRIS:

    Without that low level offense Philando Castile would have never have been…

  • CHRISTOPHER BURY:

    Ron Harris, is working to reform local laws regulating low level offenses that, he says, are far more likely to be enforced against blacks than whites. A practice that, Harris says, draws more African Americans deeper into the criminal justice system.

  • RON HARRIS:

    Disproportionately black and brown men are targeted for those offense and they are very rarely charged with the low level offense. They are actually charged with a higher offense. But the only way the police ever got to the higher offense was through the entry point of the low level offense.

  • CHRISTOPHER BURY:

    Last June, Minneapolis repealed two misdemeanor laws, enacted during the 19th century, that banned "spitting" and "lurking," or hiding for the purpose of committing a crime. Nekima Levy-Pounds, who heads the Minneapolis office of the NAACP, pushed for the change.

  • NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS:

    We found that in most jurisdictions lurking was unconstitutional and as a matter of fact people couldn't even explain what lurking actually was. Someone standing at a bus stop could be considered lurking.

  • CHRISTOPHER BURY:

    The president of the Minneapolis City Council, Barb Johnson, worried about high crime in her district, cast the only vote against repealing the laws banning spitting and lurking.

  • BARB JOHNSON:

    I am concerned that if we do away with penalties for this low level kind of crime that people will feel unsafe and then leave my community and I don't want to see that happen.

  • CHRISTOPHER BURY:

    But Minneapolis city records show a clear racial disparity in police enforcement, for example, of the 392 people arrested for lurking between 2009 and 2014, 59% were African American. In Minneapolis, blacks make up about 19% of the population.

    The ACLU, in a study of all low level crimes in the city, found African Americans were nearly 9 times more likely to be arrested for such offenses than whites.

  • TERESA NELSON:

    The report highlighted all of the ways in which people of color in Minneapolis are facing huge disparities when it comes to low level arrests. I think everybody knew there were racial disparities but not the depth of the problem.

  • CHRISTOPHER BURY:

    The racial tension surrounding the enforcement of low level crimes, like the police stop that led to the death of Philando Castile, is part of a larger national debate over policing. One philosophy, known as "broken windows," calls for aggressive policing of small crimes to prevent larger disorder in the community. Lieutenant Bob Kroll, who heads the Minneapolis Police Union, likens it to fishing.

  • LT. BOB KROLL:

    Little arrests lead to big arrests and if you have cause to stop someone for the lurking crime and doing an investigatory stop, you may find out that they have warrants for their arrest, or you may find out that, upon closer look, they are wanted in a crime which has been occurring in an area you are policing and they match a description and may warrant further questioning from investigators.

  • CHRISTOPHER BURY:

    But activists in Minneapolis are pushing for a more tolerant approach. They say the repeal of ordinances against lurking and spitting is just the beginning. That the enforcement of other misdemeanors, such as public urination and aggressive panhandling, should also be scrapped.

  • NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS:

    It does not actually benefit public safety to have such petty, low level offenses on the books and it's a huge waste of taxpayer dollars and resources.

  • CHRISTOPHER BURY:

    The lingering unease in the Twin Cities is palpable. All week long, protesters gathered at the Minnesota governor's mansion. At the memorial along the road where Philando Castile died, two young women embraced in silence, paying their respects to a man who has now become another reminder of the racial divide that, many believe, is made wider by a disparity in the way police handle petty crime.

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