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State police traffic quotas could lead to racial profiling, ACLU says

Michigan State Police
If troopers think they have to increase their stop and arrest numbers, the ACLU worries that could mean more poor, black drivers get stopped.

Michigan State Police may be pulling over more low-income drivers and people of color, because of police quotas.

That’s a concern the ACLU of Michigan describes in a public letter to the MSP today.

“If a trooper finds that he’s deficient, that he’s not made as many stops as he’ll be expected to have made, then it creates a hazard that in his desperation … he will begin to make stops that really shouldn’t be made at all,” ACLU of Michigan attorney Mark Fancher says.

“Then it may also occur to him, that he should be stopping people who won’t complain or won’t be taken seriously, either because of their racial identity or their socioeconomic status,” he says. “And that’s a hazard that concerns us a great deal.”

It's illegal in Michigan for police to have quotas for traffic tickets, but Michigan State Police tracks the number of traffic stops its troopers make, as well as the number of arrests on patrol and in investigation. 

Michigan State Police trooper Ann Poehlman says she and other officers are being told to target specific areas.

“We are told to go to specific intersections, in specific areas, to get our numbers up,” she says.  

"We are told to go to specific intersections, in specific areas, to get our numbers up ... and it's minorities."

“If you go into poorer communities, or communities where they can’t afford an attorney or where they don’t feel supported by the court system, then it’s an easy ticket to write. You may never have to go court at all.”

Trooper Poehlman says this started just a few years ago, back around 2011, when she says there was a big shift towards upping the number of trooper arrests and tickets, to make sure the state kept giving the MSP enough funding.

“And it’s minorities. We’re going to minority communities. And we know that they won’t have a driver’s license. And because we write them a ticket and let them go, we don’t care; it’s a number. If we stop that same person, they’ll probably have a warrant, because they can’t afford these astronomical fees, and it’s a misdemeanor. So we’ve created these high crime areas.”

Poehlman filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights this year, alleging harassment “due to my age [53] and in retaliation for providing testimony regarding discriminatory practices…”

State police spokeswoman Shanon Banner says she’s not able to comment on pending personnel matters, but Banner strongly denies that the state police are using racial profiling.

Our Activity Analysis program is utilized to provide feedback to troopers on their performance in core areas of their job duties and to provide an objective mechanism for supervisors to evaluate each trooper’s performance measured against their peers at the post. MSP troopers are not required to stop, arrest, detain, or cite a fixed number of motorists relative to the semi-annual Activity Analysis. TheMSP wholeheartedly disagrees with the ACLU’s statement that the Activity Analysis program is “problematic because it can create an incentive to stop motorists without proper grounds when troopers have deficient stop records and they become desperate to meet supervisors’ expectations.” Troopers are trained to stop motorists only if there is a violation of the Michigan Vehicle Code or they have cause to believe criminal activity is afoot. Stopping motorists without proper grounds or using race, ethnicity, or gender to select whom a trooper stops is in direct violation of the MSP Code of Conduct, the MSP Community Relations Policy, Official Order 12 - Recognizing and Reporting Discriminatory Harassment and Civil Rights Violations Involving Department Members, and the MSP Discriminatory Harassment Policy. If a trooper is accused of stopping a motorist without proper grounds, a thorough and objective internal investigation will be completed.

Banner also says the state police don’t typically track a driver’s race in their daily reports.

The [daily electronic reports] includes a field for race that is populated automatically with an entry of “unknown” by information provided by the Michigan Secretary of State (SOS) via the Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN). The SOS does not provide race data. While not required to, troopers do override the autofill and provide race, if known. If the override is not done, the race is entered as unknown. Consequently, for those entries marked as unknown, commanders would not be able to determine the race of the persons documented on the eDaily from the eDaily information alone. Further inquiry would be necessary.

ACLU of Michigan attorney Mark Fancher says he’s been asking the state police to pass along any data related to race and traffic stops – but he says he’s gotten radio silence.

“Unless there are messages that I have not received, we have received no response,” he says.

State police spokeswoman Shanon Banner says: “To my knowledge, the ACLU has not requested any specific data from us.  We have responded to questions from them regarding this issue, but none were a request for data.” 

UPDATE: Mark Fancher, staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, says he wants to clarify that:

"MSP is correct that we have not requested specific data about racial stops. I may have misunderstood your question. What I asked for and never received is the information they provided you...about whether they have a practice of identifying by race the drivers who are stopped during each shift and monitoring racial patterns. That request is made yet again in the letter we sent yesterday. The only response I ever saw regarding this topic is the one you received and shared [from the MSP.]" 

In his interview Wednesday, Fancher told Michigan Radio: 

“We are very interested in knowing whether Michigan State Police already may have data or information which would tend to either support the idea that racial profiling is going on, or disprove it.

“And it’s our understanding that, on a daily basis, supervisors are reviewing the stops that are made by their troopers. And one of the specific questions we have, is whether during that review, the supervisors are looking at the racial identities of people who have been stopped on that day.

"And if they’re also looking at whether there is some kind of irregular racial pattern to these stops; and if there is pattern of that kind that’s detected, what types of procedure or protocol exists for addressing that and remedying it...

“We have not yet received a response to those specific questions."

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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