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ACLU sues Michigan State Police for alleged racial profiling in traffic stops

michigan state police
The ACLU of Michigan is suing the Michigan State Police, claiming that the disproportionate share of traffic stops of Black drivers is a sign of racial profiling. (Shutterstock)

The Michigan State Police is being sued for alleged racial profiling and unlawful search and seizures when conducting traffic stops.

In 2020, about 21 percent of all MSP traffic stops involved drivers who were Black, while about 14 percent of Michigan residents are African-American.

Michigan State Police Col. Joseph Gasper said in a statement Wednesday that the allegations made by the ACLU are an “intentional misrepresentation of our efforts and their continual insistence on pushing their own agenda … works only toward furthering the divide between the public and law enforcement and is preventing real progress.

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“We continue to welcome the support and assistance of true partners who wish to work together with us to achieve solutions that will improve the policies and practices of law enforcement,” Gasper said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed the federal lawsuit against the Michigan State Police on behalf of a Black couple on Wednesday, arguing the agency has failed to review its own practices to address its disproportionate rates of pulling over African Americans.

The case was filed on behalf of Camara Sankofa and Shanelle Thomas, who were pulled over in August 2019 and detained for nearly two hours in Oak Park while state troopers conducted a search of the couple and their vehicle. The officer who pulled Sankofa and Thomas over said they had run a red light, yet Sankofa, the driver, was issued no citation or ticket for a violation. The ACLU of Michigan shared a video of the couple and the traffic stop.

The ACLU claims the traffic stop was an example of a pattern of racial profiling by the state police. 

The ACLU of Michigan said it has been asking the state police to have an expert review its own policies and practices to address alleged racial profiling since for several years. 

“We didn't want to file this lawsuit,” said ACLU staff attorney Mark Fancher in a press conference streamed on Facebook. “We have been resisting it for years because of our hope that, when confronted with evidence and racially disparate traffic stops, the Michigan State Police would agree that it is important to pinpoint the reasons for the disparities, and then take steps to fix the problem. But our hopes have been in vain.”

Shanon Banner, Michigan State Police spokesperson, declined to comment on the pending lawsuit but provided a statement from Gasper, who rejected the ACLU’s claim that MSP has been uncooperative and not revised their policies. Gasper said the state police responded to ACLU’s advocacy in 2017 by beginning to record data on the race of individuals involved in traffic stops.

State police have also contracted with Michigan State University researchers to analyze the department’s data and “identify instances where a disparity may exist.” That analysis is not yet complete, according to the state police.

Still, statistics suggest there is an apparent disparity between the percent of Black or African American drivers pulled over and the overall population of African Americans in Michigan. According to data from the Michigan State Police, the proportion of Black or Afrcian American drivers being pulled over rose every year from 2017 to 2020 while the overall number of traffic stops decreased each year. (There is no data on how many drivers there were on the road of each race.) 

In 2017, traffic stops involving Black residents made up 17 percent of stops made by Michigan State Police troopers. In 2020, traffic stops of Black drivers were 21 percent of all stops.  

According to data collected by the Michigan State Police and the U.S. Census Bureau, in 75 of Michigan’s 83 counties, African Americans represent a greater proportion of traffic stops than their population in the county. 

 

But interpreting that data is more complex than that. For example, state police typically patrol only state and interstate highways, and there is no comparative data indicating the racial makeup of drivers along those roads. The data also does not indicate where in these counties the stops occurred, which could have an impact on the demographics of who is pulled over.

The lawsuit alleges that state troopers racially profiled Sankofa and Thomas and had no other reason to detain him. The document claims that the officer who pulled the couple over noticed Sankofa was wearing a kufi hat, an African headwear, and said “nice hat.” The officer asked Sankofa if there were drugs in the vehicle. When Sankofa said there weren’t, the officer allegedly replied, “We’ll see,” with officers conducting a K-9 search of the car soon after.

Banner said police officers do not know the race of a driver before they are pulled over. For the purposes of data recording, officers make their “best guess” on the race of the driver and record ‘unknown’ if they are unsure.

Leonard Mungo, an attorney who has sued the state to address alleged racial discrimination in the Michigan State Police’s hiring practices, said the ACLU lawsuit could help push reform in the state police’s policies.

“I think it's an important response to a very prevalent problem that we have in law enforcement, that conducts its business and (is) motivated by a racial consideration,” Mungo said. “These sorts of actions … allow us to clearly make out proof critical to bringing about necessary changes and deterring that kind of conduct.”

While Sankofa and Thomas were not harmed and did not receive a ticket from officers when they were pulled over, the couple were concerned for their safety and said they felt traumatized by the incident. Sankofa said on Wednesday that the day he was pulled over “is a chilling memory of a racist traffic stop that left a scar” and that “it’s something I think of every day, especially when I get into my vehicle.”

“I knew I did nothing wrong. There was no reason why I should have been pulled over, other than driving while Black.”

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