by Chris Williams
Bemidji, Minnesota (AP)
Around here, when some Indians say they’ve been stopped for DWI, they don’t always mean they were driving drunk. They might mean “driving while Indian,” a sly way of saying they were pulled over for no good reason.
Behind the wry humor is anger. Many American Indians in this part of northern Minnesota believe they are victims of racial profiling by police and sheriff’s deputies who abuse their discretion.
Though authorities deny any discrimination, the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter has opened its first office outside the Twin Cities solely to gather profiling complaints.
The two-year, $190,000 effort has attracted the attention of civil libertarians and Indian rights activists around the nation.
“This is a situation that stinks in Minnesota,” said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota ACLU.
Crime numbers from the region are so suggestive that it’s impossible to rule out biased law enforcement, Samuelson says.
– A University of Minnesota analysis of traffic stops in 2002 found that in cities and counties bordering the Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe reservations, Indians were stopped and searched at disproportionately higher rates than white drivers, though the rate of finding contraband in an Indian vehicle was no higher.
– Arrest figures from six area counties in 1999 – the latest data available in such detail – showed that Indians accounted for 32 percent of arrests while making up just 12 percent of the population.
Samuelson said no individual statistic proves racial profiling, but the cumulative effect is undeniable.
“They get stopped at a little higher percentage than whites, searched at a higher percentage, arrested at a little higher percentage,” he said. “At every opportunity where discretion can enter into it, the people of color lose.”
Law officers throughout the region say they simply arrest people who break the law.
“I can assure you that in my experience in three years as chief of police I have not seen any racial profiling by my department or the sheriff’s department,” said Bruce Preece, the Bemidji police chief. “We do not condone it.”
He said the University of Minnesota study underestimated the number of Indians who drive through his city, making it appear that Indians are stopped at an unusually high rate. And he said claims of harassment have always come without enough details to start an investigation.
“No matter how hard we try, the same group of people continuously chastise us and attempt to make these allegations,” he said. “We spend a considerable amount of time defending ourselves. It gets demoralizing.”
To supplement the statistics, Samuelson launched the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project. He hired a coordinator, Audrey Thayer, in May.
Thayer, an energetic, 52-year-old Ojibwe woman with a long history of working for progressive causes, opened a storefront office downtown earlier this month. But she spends most of her time seeking out stories, not waiting for them.
She has canvassed the poor at a community soup kitchen, questioned Indians waiting to see relatives in jail and given flyers to teens hanging out late at night.
Thayer said she often hears of law enforcement officers who work “in the gray areas.” To her, that means using feeble excuses, like burned-out license plate lights, to stop and question Indian drivers.
“I don’t know that they know that what they are doing is wrong,” Thayer said.
One of the stories she offers involves one of her own children, 28-year-old Sumac Devlin.
Devlin was convicted of drinking and driving in 2003. She lost her license, but by her own admission, kept driving to work. She was arrested several times, fell behind on fines, and faces a six-week stretch in the Beltrami County jail working off the debt.
“I know what I’m doing is against the law, but how am I going to get to work?” said Devlin, who complained that she was stalked by police. “All I want is for the cops to stop harassing us.”
Asked about Devlin’s case, Preece dismissed the idea of harassment, saying Devlin was known to police long before her drunken driving charge. She’s had about 30 contacts with police in the past seven years, he said.
Minnesota isn’t the first state to hear complaints from Indians about their treatment by police.
In South Dakota, Indians complained that officers were using a law against hanging objects from rear-view mirrors to pull over drivers with dangling eagle feathers or spirit catchers. In February, despite the efforts of Indian lawmakers, that state’s Legislature rejected a bill that would have required police to collect racial information during traffic stops.
But there have been few, if any, organized and well-funded responses like the Minnesota ACLU’s.
King Downing, the ACLU’s national coordinator for campaign against racial profiling, called the Minnesota experiment “the next level” of looking into racial profiling.
He said Indians are often more disenfranchised than other groups that more commonly claim racial profiling, including blacks and Hispanics, because Indians are usually isolated in rural areas.
Downing acknowledged the difficulty of proving racial profiling.
“Early on, individuals made complaints, a lot of anecdotal stories,” Downing said. “Police departments said, ‘We need more than stories. We need data.”’
Now that data has been gathered, Downing said, “the conversation is turning toward, ‘Well, the data doesn’t prove anything definitively.’ What we say is the data shows there’s a problem that the police department has to respond to. They have to tell us what other reason there could be for this disparity.”
Earl Maus, the county attorney in Cass County, offers a reason: the poverty of much of the Indian population in the region. “People who live in poverty generally have a higher rate of crime,” he said.
In Cass County in 1999, Indians made up 11 percent of the population but accounted for more than half the arrests.
Maus said county leaders are working with tribal police and the federal authorities to tackle the high arrest rates among Indians. He said he welcomes the ACLU’s suggestions.
“If they can come in here and show us some way to do things better, we’d be grateful,” he said.
Robert Shimek, a member of the community group Anishinabe Coalition for Peace and Justice, said he has long thought that a powerful outside group was necessary to watch law enforcement officers in the area.
He said he worries that “it might be payback time” when the ACLU leaves in two years, but said it’s a risk worth taking.
“If it somehow improves the lives of Native citizens in the area,” he said, “even if it’s at the expense of some of the folks who work at the city, at the county, or other places, then it’s a good thing.”