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In police debate at Minnesota Capitol, echoes from past ring anew

By Brian Bakst, Minnesota Public Radio News

Twenty years ago, Lateesa Ward sat with her hands clasped at a Minnesota Senate committee witness table. She brought prepared remarks but seldom broke eye contact with lawmakers as she recounted two traumatic incidents that shook her trust in police.

“The first time I had ever looked down the barrel of a gun, it was held by a white male in a blue uniform,” she began that March morning before the Senate Crime Prevention Committee. “I was living in Mounds View. I had my 13-year-old son with me. I had cops surrounding my car with their guns drawn and trained.”

It happened in 1989. A police cruiser traveling in the opposite direction spun around on Highway 10 and officers stopped Ward’s vehicle. They mistook Ward and her son for Black robbery suspects and detained the pair until realizing their error.

Five years later and by then a lawyer, Ward was leaving a holiday work party in downtown Minneapolis. She stopped to challenge how police were dealing with two Black youth in the City Center shopping area. She soon found herself in custody and told lawmakers of being struck in the face.

“I was handcuffed by the police officers when this occurred,” Ward said. “I was thrown to the floor headfirst. And then that officer knelt on my head and continued to abuse me.”

Ward hoped that by sharing the startling details with Minnesota legislators on that day in 2001, they would do something significant to tackle concerns around race and policing. Other racial minorities also stepped forward, telling of being stopped repeatedly and sometimes subject to car searches in their regular commutes for reasons they couldn’t understand.

They were assured their first-hand experiences were valuable, but the end legislative result left some disappointed that they really hadn’t been heard.

Ron Edwards, a Minneapolis civil rights activist who died last year, warned lawmakers back then to take concerns of mistreatment seriously. But he sounded resigned in the same testimony that it wouldn’t.

“Probably nothing meaningful will happen until we have a Rodney King type of incident in the state of Minnesota,” Edwards said.

As Ward, now 64, reflected recently on what happened to her in the second encounter, she couldn’t help but draw parallels to how George Floyd died last May under the knee of another Minneapolis police officer.

“That guy had his knee grinding in my back and neck area and stuff like that. They were doing stuff like that back then. That was in ‘94,” Ward said in a recent interview.

“And I literally told them I couldn’t breathe. Oh my God, it’s just so amazing. That is the sensation you get when somebody is doing that. You are not getting air. You are not getting oxygen.”

Both of Ward’s encounters led to lawsuits. One went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled it could go forward against the city but that the individual officers were immune from liability. Each case resulted in financial awards.

Ward is watching the current debate over policing from afar, but she wants those pushing for change to keep the pressure up.

“When people start complaining and raising hell, then all the sudden everyone is interested,” she said. “When they’re not raising hell and time has passed after incident after incident, they just go back to the way things were.”

So what did pass in 2001?

After considerable back and forth, lawmakers authorized a study of racial profiling. The Senate sponsor was DFLer Jane Ranum of Minneapolis, who held it up as an initial step in building community trust.

“Studies show that Minnesota ranks near the top in disparities between Blacks and whites in arrests and incarceration rates,” said Ranum, who would later become a Minnesota judge. “To me this highlights the need for study and action, not just by the police and sheriffs but by the entire criminal justice system.”

Charlie Weaver, then the commissioner of Public Safety under Gov. Jesse Ventura, told lawmakers that stops on the basis of race alone were “intolerable.”

“This isn’t a new problem,” Weaver testified. “If everyone in the room acknowledges this is a problem, what do you do about it? What’s the smartest way to spend government resources but also hopefully not waste police officers’ time. The clear position of the governor is we don’t need to study this anymore. This has been studied to death. We don’t need to spend more time and more money studying it. We need to solve it.”

Despite calls for compiling of race data on traffic stops to be mandatory, it was deemed voluntary. Data wouldn’t be connected to specific officers, as some advocates pressed for. In the end, 65 jurisdictions participated in the study.

Gavin Kearney, now a civil rights lawyer based in Chicago, was one of the project researchers. He said the findings were clear.

“Compared to the driving age population of the jurisdiction, Black and Latinx drivers were stopped far more frequently than would have been expected compared to overall stop rates,” Kearney said in an April interview. “In particular, Blacks were stopped I think over three times the expected amount.”

When he and colleagues presented their study to state agency officials and legislators, Kearney remembers the response as underwhelming.

“It was sort of a quick, ‘OK, thanks for doing this,’ and then that was about it,” he said. “There didn’t seem to be much interest in better understanding what our findings suggested and taking action on it.”

The data collection stopped when the study was complete.

That 2001 legislation also sought model policies and more training tied to racial bias. It required the creation of a hotline in the attorney general’s office where people could report complaints of racial profiling. Those complaints were to be turned over to the Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, which was supposed to make summary data public.

Those requirements also soon lapsed, and a POST Board official told MPR News in April that it doesn’t have any corresponding complaint information.

Fast forward to now. The Legislature is again discussing how to balance public safety and public trust in law enforcement. They’re weighing changes to traffic stops, misconduct investigations and other areas of police accountability.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, is a key player. He was 10 years into his legislative career in 2001 and sponsored anti-racial profiling bills then. He sees now as the time to act because he knows that momentum for change can be fleeting.

“Given our history, it will fade. And then we’ll have another tragedy and we’ll try to address it again,” Mariani said. “That’s not a good way for us to advance our most core, important principles and protect the lives of our citizens.”

Across the bargaining table is Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove. He was also involved in the discussions two decades ago as a member of the committee that heard Ward’s testimony.

Limmer said there have been recent strides. That includes laws passed last summer after George Floyd’s death to ban chokeholds, raise the bar for when deadly force can be employed and rework officer training.

“I don’t think our work is ever done. We come back here every year. And there’s something new. There is some new threat. Something goes on in the neighborhood that we have to catch our eyes onto,” Limmer said. “And so we continue and we keep moving.”

Ward doesn’t have high hopes of much passing this year — even after Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction in Floyd’s killing and criminal charges against a former Brooklyn Center police officer in Daunte Wright’s recent traffic-stop death.

“Do I think the legislators are going to do anything about it on any level — state or federal? No I don’t,” she said. “I would like them to prove me wrong.”

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