New data: Reducing low-level traffic stops decreases racial disparity, increases percentage stopped for safety violations in Ramsey County
The Ramsey County Attorney’s office revealed the first-year results of a newer traffic stop policy specific to the county.
A year and a half ago, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he would no longer prosecute felony cases that stem from low-level traffic stops. Since then, four police departments have directed their officers not to stop drivers solely for vehicle equipment violations, which include minor offenses like tinted windshields or expired registration tabs.
The change was born primarily out of a stark racial inequity in the drivers being stopped. Black drivers are four times more likely to be pulled over and nine times more likely to be searched during that stop, according to researchers from the Justice Innovation Lab at George Washington University, who compiled the data presented to reporters Wednesday.
Those researchers and participating police chiefs said these interactions between drivers and police have too often turned deadly, making traffic stops dangerous for both parties, and the racial disparity erodes public trust.
“I’m just so proud to tell you that I think all indications are moving in the right direction, and that we have not in any way negatively impacted public safety,” Choi said, opening a slew of remarks Wednesday morning, touting the results of a year-and-a-half effort to cut down traffic stops for minor traffic infractions. In other words, violations that don’t impact the safety of the driver or others on the road.
“I consider this a human rights policy,” Tyrone Terril, president of the African American Leadership Council said. “When you don’t have to worry about being pulled over for minor violations, then everybody’s gonna be safer.”
St. Paul, Roseville, Maplewood and St. Anthony Police Departments made the shift, and since then, there have been fewer traffic stops overall.
In the first year after the new policy was implemented, moving violations (or violations that significantly impact the safety of other drivers) and those for investigative reasons—requiring probable cause, became the majority of traffic stops.
In St. Paul alone, the number of drivers pulled over for vehicle equipment violations went from 5,328 to 490 in the first year.
“If we’re going to spend time and resources trying to make our community safer, and we have time to make 100 traffic stops today, it’s really just this easy: What do you want people stopping people for?” posed St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry.
He attributed the overall decrease in traffic stops in large part to staffing and a necessary adjustment period. The numbers have risen already in 2023, he added.
“We’re almost at the number of traffic stops this year that we made all of last year,” Chief Henry said. “So, that lets me know that they’re out stopping, they’re out doing traffic enforcement, and they’re doing the type that their community and the department has asked them to do.”
While disparity remains, the data showed Black drivers were pulled over 66% fewer times by participating police agencies in the first year of the new policy.
“All of this was done without negatively impacting public safety,” said Akhi Johnson, who is the director of the non-profit Vera Institute’s ‘Reshaping Prosecution Initiative.’
Choi said, so far, he’s refused to prosecute nine out of 12 criminal charges that stemmed from vehicle equipment violations brought to his office by all Ramsey County law enforcement.
Aside from a case of a person under 21 carrying a rifle in public, all nine were drug-related charges.
“Now, of course, we have a public safety exception in that policy if the police officer articulates to us about how important it is that this person is charged with this particular crime,” Choi said. “We’ve been developing out kind of what that public safety exception means.”
The Ramsey County Attorney did agree to prosecute three criminal cases stemming from vehicle equipment violations.
The first was a windshield violation where the driver fled.
“We’re really glad that the police caught them because if we didn’t catch them, it would have been another unsolved auto theft,” Choi said.
In the other two cases, the drivers were illegally in possession of guns, Choi said. One of them was also in possession of narcotics, he continued.
Missing illegal guns was a primary concern with this policy to begin with. The data does show a slight decrease in firearms seizures since implementation, but researchers argued the benefit outweighs the cost.
“What we see is that police recovered guns less than 1% of the time, which in my opinion is a rather poor return on investment for public safety in our communities,” said Jared Fishman, the executive director for the Justice Innovation Lab.
St. Paul and Roseville Police, with help from a few organizations, have also adopted an alternative response for when drivers have expired tabs or a light out. Instead of pulling a driver over, an officer records a driver’s license plate number from their squad without interaction. Then, the department follows up with a letter that explains that an officer noticed the violation.
“Our desire is to let you know that this is a citable offense and encourage you to get the necessary repair and/or registration for your vehicle,” a sample letter from the St. Paul Police Department reads in part.
And rather than a ticket with a fine, drivers can pick up a voucher from the station to help cover the cost of fixing their lights. If the issue is expired registration tabs, there’s a number in the letter that people can call for financial assistance as well.