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Beware! Discrimination lurking in Minneapolis
The Minneapolis Lurking Ordinance was first introduced into law in 1877 as a section of the Disorderly Conduct Ordinance. Since that time, many have considered it yet another tool that the police target specifically at young African American men. Currently, there are only four cities in the country that have a specific lurking ordinance, two of them being Minneapolis and St. Paul.
At least seven Minneapolis City Council members must object in order to repeal the ordinance and remove it from the books. Because of the long-existing strained relationship between African American men and the Minneapolis Police Department, Guy Gambill of the Council on Crime and Justice believes that Minneapolis should take the lead in repealing the ordinance.
When the ordinance was originally introduced, it was mainly directed to stowaways on railways. But according to the most recent statistics looking by race at those tagged for lurking, of the 800 arrests made in 2003, 466 were Black.
Gambill says that the ordinance is not clear about what lurking actually is, and he is convinced that it covers criminal behavior already addressed in the loitering ordinance. According to a February 28 article in City Pages, the Council on Crime and Justice found that 78 percent of lurking offenses were followed by dismissal of the charges, each costing hundreds of taxpayer dollars.
Whereas loitering is ?remaining in a certain place for no apparent reason,? it is the intent behind the 2005 amended lurking ordinance that makes it much more subjective: ?No person, in any public or private place, shall lurk, lie in wait or be concealed with intent to commit any crime or unlawful act.?
Currently, city council members Gary Schiff, Betsey Hodges, Elizabeth Glidden and Cam Gordon have already expressed their intent to back the repeal, with council members Diane Hofstede and Don Samuels still undecided. The vote of any of the undecided members could be the tipping point for the ordinance?s repeal.
Council Member Samuels isn?t completely convinced that the ordinance should be repealed. He suggests that law enforcement, legal staff and council members examine the ordinance and discuss the specifics of what makes it a useful tool for the police. ?If the ordinance has a legitimate use,? he says, ?then how can we isolate that and reframe it so that it is not left up to anybody?s discretion??
Samuels says that he would be in favor of an ordinance designed to decrease crime, specifically drug-related crime, but he would rather redefine the loitering-with-intent ordinance because it more accurately describes behaviors which have become associated with selling drugs, such as approaching a car and exchanging small items repeatedly and using hands and mouth to imitate smoking.
Lieutenant Amelia Huffman, public information officer for the Minneapolis Police Department, says that residents in many neighborhoods across the city say they want officers to have the authority to enforce laws such as the lurking ordinance, particularly in alleyways that they feel have become unsafe. ?Those are sometimes venues where people lay in wait to commit robberies or hide while looking for an opportunity to commit a burglary,? Huffman says.
By using language like ?concealing oneself? and ?lying in wait,? she feels that the lurking ordinance more accurately applies to crimes like burglaries and robberies. ?Loitering is typically loitering for narcotics, loitering for prostitution, and so they tend to be applied differently, and they tend to be applied for different kinds of underlying crimes,? Huffman says.
As far as intent is concerned, Huffman says that intent is not confined to lurking but is an element of many ordinances. She also says that high numbers of African American offenders is not unique to the lurking ordinance. ?It?s one of those issues that is important for the community to examine broadly in terms of criminal justice and policing.?
In regards to intent, Samuels says, ?Tests show that pretty much all Americans across all races tend to give White people a pass on the appearance factor? So giving people, in this case police officers, the power to decide what the intent of someone is when their behavior is actually a passive behavior ? it might be putting too much decision-making in the hands of any one person.?
He is mainly concerned that the ordinance is open for individual interpretation. ?The problem is if it?s one person?s interpretation against another of an incident, then the police are going to be a lot more credible than a poor guy halfway articulate and not able to represent himself or impress a judge.?
Huffman points out that crimes are most often committed against victims of the same race as their suspect. ?Many of the most deeply impacted neighborhoods in the city, those crime victims are also African Americans. Certainly it?s something that, like the other ordinances that we use in the Minnesota, we would want to apply to keep all of our residences in Minneapolis safe.?
Council member Remington says that he does not support removing the ordinance. He says that, as an African American man, the times he has been stopped by the police it has always been wrongful, but it has never been for lurking.
?I think that the intent behind those who want to remove the lurking ordinance is noble, but it doesn?t have any teeth,? Remington says. He believes that leaders should instead attack institutional racism rather than attacking the tools that the police need in order to do their jobs.
Huffman, Remington and Samuels agree that it is important that the police have effective tools necessary to do their jobs. But Samuels says that the police should not have such broad discretion that abuse is likely to occur. He describes a scenario like Block E in downtown Minneapolis where people begin to hang out, and by doing so begin to create a climate of fear.
?If you get tolerant with those kinds of things, a tipping point happens? Gradually that elements eclipses the people who go there to do business or [for] entertainment, and it just destroys the business district. We can?t allow that to happen, [but] we have to balance that with the rights of people.?
When asked how concerned he was about the fact that currently the majority of those tagged for lurking in Minneapolis have been Black, Samuels says, ?The truth is, if you look at who is arrested for loitering with the intent to sell drugs, the number would be even higher for African Americans.
?On the North Side, I probably have seen three people selling drugs visibly who were not African Americans. Sometimes it is not necessarily racial profiling, it?s just a population phenomenon.
?If you had a Hispanic gang on the North Side, you?re dead,? Samuels continues. ?You?d be overwhelmed. The guys who control the streets are young Black men. I don?t think you can use that number completely to say whether something is racial profiling.?
Because intent is hard to determine, Samuels is hesitant to stand behind the lurking ordinance, but he believes that ?A conversation about it is justified.? He also agrees with others that ?The whole intent factor might be giving too much discretion to the officers.?
©2007 Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder