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Learn how the Foundation and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office are partnering to establish policy change around non-public-safety traffic stops.

In 2021 Ramsey County law enforcement officers announced they would reduce reliance on non-public-safety traffic stops (for things like one taillight out or something hanging from a rear-view mirror). County Attorney John Choi and police chiefs from Maplewood, Roseville, St. Anthony Village, and Saint Paul wanted to decrease unnecessary traffic stops, while building trust and safety for the community. Black drivers in Ramsey County were four times more likely to be stopped, and nine times more likely to be searched, than white drivers for these minor violations.

With support from the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office has been able to leverage philanthropy to support this important work by creating the Ramsey County Public Safety Fund. This fund provides funding for non-public-safety traffic stop research as well as financial assistance to those who may need it in the form of a coupon for repairing equipment, or assistance getting expired tabs renewed.

“We got involved in non-public-safety traffic stops because John Choi [Ramsey County Attorney] called us and because we knew this initiative would create great change in our community if we could successfully pull it off,” said President & CEO of the Foundation, Dr. Eric Jolly. “We know that Philando Castile was killed because of a non-public safety traffic stop. I can't tell you how deeply injured I was and still am knowing that that happened in our community.”

Now police officers can enter the necessary information on their onboard computers and ensure that the person who owns that vehicle is notified of any issues without ever being stopped. Drivers then receive letters notifying them of the issue and information about how to get a repair voucher or assistance with registration.

Research Findings

In April 2022, Justice Innovation Lab (JIL) began its partnership with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office to help them understand the impact of this policy change. Overall, the data indicate that the new traffic stop policy was successful in reducing minor, non-safety-related vehicle violation stops, that this reduction resulted in a narrowing of racial differences in traffic stops and searches, and that the policy had no discernible effect on public safety.

Research has shown that non-public-safety traffic stops and searches declined significantly for policy-aligned police departments. Stops went down by 86% and searches by 92%. Also, Black drivers in Ramsey County experienced the largest decrease in non-public-safety traffic stops per capita, down 66% in the year after the change. Additionally, traffic stops for public safety issues like speeding and impaired driving went up as a percentage of all stops.

“I used to be a prosecutor who believed that, if you do these types of traffic stops, this was a good way to find contraband, like guns and drugs you need to get it off our streets. The truth is that they rarely ever yield this type of contraband,” said Choi. “The police resources spent on these non-public-safety issues and the disparities that break down community trust actually make us all less safe.”

I think in so many ways the innovative approach here was really helped by philanthropy and I'm so grateful to the Foundation, Dr. Jolly and his leadership, stepping up and recognizing that this is an important issue.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi

New Practices and Beliefs

Choi’s old beliefs still ring true for a lot of people despite research by universities such as Stanford and the University of North Carolina that indicate otherwise, which is why he thought it was important for Ramsey County to do some localized research of its own.

“We wanted to make this change but we needed to show that it has actually had the desired impact,” said Choi. “We were able to engage the Justice Innovation Lab — they were able to undertake this research, utilizing our traffic stop data throughout Ramsey County, and the conclusions showed everything that we said that we wanted to have happened.”

He is pleased that the research shows that law enforcement now has more time to focus on traffic stops that truly impact our public safety such as impaired or reckless driving and excessive speeding.

“I think it's really important that everybody in Ramsey County understands and can see the data, make their own conclusions and have their own conversations with their city leaders and their city police chiefs,” Choi said.

He believes philanthropic support has allowed all the partners involved to maximize and activate their innovation.

“I think in so many ways the innovative approach here was really helped by philanthropy and I'm so grateful to the Foundation, Dr. Jolly and his leadership, stepping up and recognizing that this is an important issue, and they play a really critical role by partnering with my office and law enforcement partners that were part of this, and ultimately our community,” he said.

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