We should expect more from MPR on St. Anthony police story than just another bias narrative

You’d think trained journalists would use their reason and investigative skills to dig and uncover “the real story” instead of jumping quickly and uncritically to the “cops are biased” narrative.  Minnesota Public Radio’s major November 2nd 12-minute story on St. Anthony police ticketing black drivers disproportionately did just that with embarrassingly simplistic reasoning.

The news story notes that over a five-year period blacks made up 44% of drivers cited during equipment stops, which is far above the 7% black population in the communities St. Anthony police patrol, and even more than 12% of blacks who live in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.  The piece would have been a little better if it had noted that the St. Anthony police patrol major thoroughfares like Snelling and Larpenteur Avenues that border Minneapolis and St. Paul, cities that are about 17% African American.  But instead of playing the weakly-reasoned population ratio game, let’s review legitimate reasons for the disparity.

Policing should not be compared to population data, but rather to the rates of offending.  There is no magic principle that guarantees that all racial groups speed, obey the law, or drive without a license or without insurance at the same rates.  More blacks being pulled over for moving violations might mean they are committing moving violations at a higher rate.  The MPR story made it sound as though driving without a license or insurance were minor offenses, and cops randomly running license plates is somehow unfair.  Driving without a license and driving without insurance are major public hazards, and running license plate numbers is a vital tool that good police officers use to uncover more serious crimes.

Because per capita income for blacks in Minneapolis and St. Paul is about one-third that of whites, on average they likely drive older cars in poorer repair that are more likely to be pulled over for equipment violations.  Age is another important factor, as young drivers are a higher risk to drive recklessly and violate traffic laws.  In Minneapolis blacks are 17% of the population but 27% of those under 25.  It is noteworthy that a significantly younger black population also explains part of the per capita income difference.

Tragically, as FBI 2015 national stats show, blacks make up more than 50% of murder and robbery arrests, and 36% of all serious crime arrests, even though they are only 13% of the population.  It appears up to date race and crime statistics aren’t easily available in Minneapolis, but 15 years ago blacks were 18% of the population but crime victims reported they committed 66% of serious crime and 58% of quality of life crimes.  So it shouldn’t be considered unusual when blacks are detained as suspects or picked up for outstanding warrants at a high rate.

Police are human, and some may be biased.  See for example U.S. Senator Tim Scott’s recent remarks on the Senate floor in which he describes his experience being pulled over seven times in one year.  But the narrative that police are racist is taking a terrible toll on our communities, and supporting that narrative with simplistic statistics and off base reasoning makes no more sense than saying police are sexist because 93% of Minnesota’s prison inmates are men.

Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.