The high profile police shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights has provided fresh impetus for the much-needed debate in this country on the dramatic differences in how various communities interact with law enforcement.
While the shooting death of Mr. Castile was tragic, we’ll wait until the ongoing investigation is completed before drawing conclusions on the justification.
But the broader story, revealed in news accounts in the days following the shooting, provided fresh and alarming evidence of the ways in which the disparities in law enforcement dramatically, and negatively, affect communities of color, right here in Minnesota.
From the accounts of family and friends, Mr. Castile was a standup guy, a hardworking and popular supervisor at a school cafeteria, who went to work and supported his family. That’s behavior we regularly hold up as the ideal in American society, yet you wouldn’t know it from Castile’s astonishing record of traffic citations, a total of 88 citations over about 14 years. More than half were dismissed, but even so, Mr. Castile was find over $7,000 during his all-too brief driving career.
While we all have our opinions, when it comes to the disparity in police enforcement, the statistics tell the real story. A recent study in the Twin Cities looked at police stops by time of day. In the late night hours, when most drivers’ faces are obscured by darkness, black drivers are, proportionally, twice as likely to be pulled over by police as white drivers. But in mid-afternoon, when police can clearly see the faces of drivers, they pull over blacks at nine times the rate of whites.
This racial injustice (and that’s what these statistics reflect) isn’t just an inconvenience for African-American, it’s an unfair and highly punitive tax on communities of color, and the poor in general.
We routinely hear complaints by commentators and others that the poor don’t pay taxes. Those are false statements, and the commentators are usually well aware of the fact, but are happy to play to the ignorance and prejudice of others to score political points. In fact, the poor pay lots of taxes, usually a far greater percentage of their income than any other demographic group in America. But the poor pay different types of taxes, and some of the most onerous are the court fees and fines regularly assessed against them for inconsequential violations. Recent investigations by major news organizations have revealed the extent to which police are used in many poor communities, particularly in communities of color, as major revenue sources for local governments. Minority drivers are stopped at rates that far exceed those for whites, and they are routinely issued citations for minor offenses, like failure to wear a seat belt, cracked taillights, and the like, that many white drivers would escape with a warning.
While the cost of such fines and fees might be a minor nuisance to those with greater means, to people of modest means, like Castile, they can quickly snowball. When, on occasion, Castile’s fines went unpaid, his driver’s license was repeatedly revoked. And when he drove to work regardless, he was cited (40 times total) for driving after revocation. The challenges for families in poorer communities are difficult enough without adding the additional burden of what many justifiably view as police harassment. This pattern of enforcement has the effect, intentional or not, of systematic oppression.
This is the reality that many people of color face in Minnesota today. And it isn’t confined to African-Americans in the Twin Cities suburbs. Native Americans in northern Minnesota also experience overzealous law enforcement, according to tribal officials.
And we can’t just blame the police. We need the Legislature to address these disparities in a serious way and reflect on whether laws can be rewritten to help better prevent the kind of abuse that minority drivers, like the late Mr. Castile, experience on a daily basis. It’s time for colorblind justice in Minnesota.