'A big step forward': Duluth police stop data provides new insight for officers, activists
Officials hope the first-of-its-kind report will build trust in the community. But activists say accountability requires more than just transparency.
DULUTH — Traffic and subject stops are a standard part of any patrol officer’s shift, occurring nearly 6,000 times in the city in 2022.
It’s long been a critical enforcement tool for police, and one of the most common ways for citizens to interact with officers. But the tactic has come under nationwide scrutiny in recent years, as fatal encounters and allegations of bias have prompted calls for reform.
Now, for the first time, the public has a detailed window into the Duluth Police Department’s practices.
A recent demographic report shows that 81.3% of all people stopped last year were known or perceived by officers to be white, while 11.2% were believed to be Black and 4.1% were recorded as American Indian or Alaska Native.
The remaining categories were Hispanic (1.6%), Asian (1.4%) and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific (0.4%).
The report, which also includes data on the reasons and outcomes for each stop, is available as a result of a new records-management system implemented by the agency in 2021. Officers are now required to enter demographic information related to every stop, with the goal of improving transparency and reducing bias.
Chief Mike Ceynowa said he did not see any major surprises in the data, which will also be used as part of an ongoing racial bias audit being conducted by an outside agency.
“I think when we look at other places where we’ve seen this done before, I don’t feel like we’re that far outside of the norm of what’s going on,” he told the News Tribune. “Do I have any surprises with one year of data? I don’t. But we’ll continue to monitor as the quarters go forward and look for other ways to analyze this.”
But Jamey Sharp, co-chair of the Duluth NAACP's criminal justice committee, said the data confirms long-running suspicions that people of color are stopped, arrested, cited and searched at higher rates than white people.
“I give the police department credit for releasing this data,” he said. “But I’m really hoping it leads to something. It can’t just lead to more talks. We need to see some movement here.”
The data shows that nearly all of the agency’s stops were self-initiated by officers, and women accounted for only 39% of encounters.
Only 17% of all stops citywide resulted in a citation or arrest. The vast majority, 78.8%, were simply resolved with a warning.
However, enforcement actions do point to a wider gap for people of color. Of those arrested, 68.1% were perceived as white, 16.4% as Black and 12.6% as Native American. For citations, 77.6% were reported as white, 14% as Black and 5.7% as Native American.
Searches were conducted in only 4% of all stops. But the data shows 63.2% involved perceived white subjects, compared to African Americans (21.8%) and Native Americans (12.5%).
The city as a whole is approximately 88.6% white, 2.6% Black and 1.7% Native American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“There are implicit biases that we’re raised with as a society,” Sharp said. “You’re raised seeing Black people on TV and mug shots. You go into the criminal justice system and you see people locked up, and it’s a pretty colorful place up at the jail. Some theorists even take that way back to slavery. There’s this idea in the criminal justice system of seeing certain individuals as suspicious because of the color of their skin.”
Police officials, however, have cautioned against “population benchmarking” when analyzing enforcement numbers. Census figures, for example, don’t necessarily reflect the true number of people living in or visiting the city, especially those experiencing poverty, who may encounter police at a higher rate due to a lack of access to housing, employment, education and health care.
An outside consultant, Bob Scales, last year released a report confirming that Black and Native American people were overrepresented in Duluth police calls, arrests and use-of-force incidents. But while the former prosecutor said he could not definitively rule out any racial bias, he opined that he did not see patterns indicating a “systemic problem.”
Ceynowa said the departments wanted to collect and release comprehensive stop data because “it is important for us to be transparent with our community in order to build trust.”
“Traffic stops are an integral part of keeping our community safe and how these stops are conducted matter to those who live, work and visit our city,” the chief said.
In addition to a summarized report, the agency also released a full spreadsheet documenting each of the 5,944 stops in 2022. New data will be posted quarterly, and Ceynowa said the information will allow for a better allocation of resources.
“If we’re identifying an increase in traffic problems or vehicle prowls or burglaries, we want to make sure we’re getting out in those areas, and looking at the time of day and locations,” he said. “Not just blanketing a neighborhood, but using actionable intelligence on either people or locations where we know that criminal activity is happening or traffic problems are occurring.”
Mayor Emily Larson, who has been in regular discussions with the NAACP and other groups, said she wasn’t sure what to expect from the first report of its kind in Duluth, but she said she was “proud of the unfiltered, voluntary release of this data to the public.”
“While we are still determining how to use this data to inform next steps, we know that justice and fairness need to be at the core of our policing system,” Larson said in a statement to the News Tribune. “Data helps us know whether those values are being reflected in tangible, meaningful ways for (the) community.”
It’s important to note that the data does not necessarily reflect the actual race of stop subjects. Officers may know that in certain cases, but in many instances they are asked to record their own perception.
Race is not included on driver’s licenses, and officials have said questioning people about their race during stops would likely create hostility. Additionally, the perception method provides insight on what officers actually believed when making the stop, rather than information gleaned later.
Most stops in 2022 fell under the category of moving violations, at 61%. Equipment violations accounted for 36% and suspicious activity was the basis for 3% of stops.
While a small subset, Sharp noted that Native Americans were particularly overrepresented in terms of suspicious activity. They accounted for 15.6% of the 186 stops, compared with perceived Black (11.3%) and white (69.3%) people.
“We have to ask the question as to why it is that officers with the DPD are disproportionately associating Native and Black folks with suspicious behavior,” he said. “The data is disparate across the board, but it’s particularly disparate for Native Americans in ways that we actually have not seen with other police data they have released.”
Ceynowa said he also wants to gain a better understanding of that topic.
“Right now, we have all our traffic stops and subject stops put together as one,” he said. “So, if we broke that down further, would this suspicious activity make more sense? It shows a higher number, but we don’t know the reason behind that.
“Those are some of the same objectives for our racial bias audit, which will look at what we’ve done, what other places have done and come back with some best-practice recommendations as well.”
The audit, being conducted by the Crime and Justice Institute in conjunction with the police department and numerous community organizations, is expected to be completed by this fall.
The audit is the fulfillment of a process that started two years ago, when the NAACP issued a public demand for the agency to end “racially disproportionate policing.”
Work to be done
Sharp said the collection and release of the stop data is a step in the right direction. But it’ll take another step, he said, to achieve accountability.
“This shows something that data doesn’t usually show,” Sharp noted. “You usually can’t show what people were thinking in data. This shows that they actually were thinking that these people looked more suspicious, and that caused them to perform a certain action. It’s profound.”
He added: “How many times do you need to see it before it’s real? Our hope would be that something like this is enough for them to see that there is disparity here, there is very possibly subconscious bias. Start having those conversations with your officers.”
City officials acknowledged there is always improvement to be found, and said ongoing collection of the data will help identify issues that need to be addressed. Ceynowa, who only became chief last September, said another key priority of his administration is to diversify the department’s ranks.
As of the end of 2022, only 18% of Duluth police officers were women. Self-identified race was 92.5% white, 3% Black, 2% Native American, 1.5% Asian and 1% Hispanic.
“When some of the numbers are that small, it’s hard to see yourself within an agency,” Ceynowa said. “Ideally, we’d like all of those to go up. And we do have a goal of getting our female staff numbers up into that 30% range. There’s actually a national organization called 30x30 — having 30% of your staff be female officers by 2030, which helps promote other diversity in your organization as well.”
Larson agreed that there is still work to be done.
“We can’t just tell people they are being policed fairly; we need to prove it,” she said. “We need to be transparent about what we know and we need to voluntarily share information. Releasing this data is a big step forward on both of those accounts, and I think shows Chief Ceynowa’s brand of leadership towards building and maintaining trust.”