By Caroline Cummings

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) –  State Rep. Cedrick Frazier vividly remembers when he was 17 and a police officer pulled him over for a broken tail light driving his aunt’s car, an experience he describes as “driving while Black.”

“As for registration, license—everything was legit. They didn’t believe the car was mine because my Aunt’s last name is different than mine,” Frazier, the Democrat from New Hope, said. “So they pulled me out of the car and searched a car for about 45 minutes. I was terrified.”

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The similarity between his story and that of 20 year-old Daunte Wright, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center almost two weeks ago, isn’t lost on him. They were both young men pulled over for a traffic violation—only Frazier is still alive today.

Families and friends celebrated Wright’s life and laid him to rest Thursday.

“The way to Daunte reacted—that was a fear that I felt,” Frazier said. “When he jumped back in the car because of that fear, we have to think that he’s seen what happened to George Floyd. He’s seen what happened to Philando Castile. He’s old enough to remember these accounts and he’s probably thinking, ‘This is going to happen to me. I’ve got to get out of here.’”

Research and data show that Black people are disproportionately more likely to get pulled over by a police officer. One study analyzed nearly 100 million traffic stops across the United States and found Black drivers were about 20% more likely to be stopped than white drivers relative to their share of the residential population.

In Minneapolis from January 2020 until late April this year, half of all traffic stops were of Black drivers, according to police department data, when they make up 19% of the city population.

Frazier believes law enforcement shouldn’t be pulling people like Wright over low-level traffic violations. Limiting stops for expired tabs, a broken tail light or air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror benefits all Minnesotans—not just Black residents—and can potentially save lives too, he said.

It’s why he authored a proposal that would do just that, which is tucked inside a large public safety bill approved by the DFL-controlled Minnesota House Wednesday night that would make a slew of policing changes.

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Under the bill, law enforcement could still pull someone over for speeding or equipment violations creating dangerous conditions for others on the road. But it’s designed to limit police encounters known as “pretext” stops, or when an officer stops a driver for a minor traffic violation and then investigates a more serious crime.

“It was absolutely those personal experiences, coupled with seeing what happened to Daunte—we’ve got to do something,” he said of the proposal, which he describes as “narrowing” the reasons an officer can pull somebody over. “[Those violations] are not per se criminal anyway so there’s really not a reason to have a law enforcement officer with a gun doing those kind of enforcement measures anyway.”

Frazier points to Fayetteville, North Carolina, as an example of how it can work. A former police chief there directed his department to halt stopping drivers for nonmoving violations that weren’t of immediate danger to public safety, according to a USA Today report.

Under those orders, from 2013 to 2016 those types of traffic stops decreased significantly and the number of Black drivers searched in that time frame compared to the previous four years dropped by 50%.

Virginia recently passed an even more expansive law aiming to curb pretext stops, which includes preventing officers from stopping vehicles because they claim to smell marijuana.

“It’s working and it’s something we need to do,” Frazier said.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, in wake of Daunte Wright’s death promised to hold hearings exploring more police accountability measures, but urged caution to evaluate all proposals and not rush policies through the Legislature. He did not commit to passing any bills this year.

A spokeswoman Minnesota Police and Peace Officer Association, which represents rank-and-file law enforcement officers in the state, said the group is still reviewing the traffic stop proposal and does not yet have a comment.

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Separately, the Minneapolis City Council is looking at creating an unarmed Traffic Safety Division outside of the police department which, according to city documents, is in part designed to eliminate racial disparities in traffic enforcement.

Caroline Cummings