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Police officer’s racial profiling led to job loss

July 12th, 2016  |  David Stephanides

A local police department was proud of its reputation for stopping alcohol- or drug-impaired drivers passing through its city, and it encouraged its officers to make a high volume of stops. A well-respected officer decided, on his own initiative, to be more aggressive with his traffic stops to get his numbers up (City of Chaska, Minnesota and Law Enforcement Labor Services, Inc., Local No. 210, St. Paul, Minnesota, Feb. 19, 2016, Richard Miller, Arbitrator).

To that end, his tactic of choice was the stationary patrol, which involved parking his car at a location and waiting for violators. In a stationary patrol, the officer, in addition to watching for violations such as texting while driving and failing to wear a seatbelt, might enter random license plate numbers into a database to determine if they have outstanding warrants or a valid driver’s license. As the site of his stationary patrol, the officer chose to park his patrol car outside of one of two mobile home parks. For several months, he ran the license plate numbers on every car that went into or out of the trailer parks, which produced a plethora of stops for violations such as driving without a license or with a suspended license.

Both trailer parks were predominantly Hispanic. The Hispanic community complained to city officials and to police officials of unfair treatment and racial profiling. As a result of these complaints, the police department ordered the officer to cease the practice, and it launched an investigation into whether the officer’s actions constituted racial profiling. After the investigation concluded that he did engage in racial profiling, the police department terminated him, and he filed a grievance.

The arbitrator concluded that the officer was not a racist. One of his two roommates, for example, was Hispanic. The crux of the inquiry, however, was not into whether he was a racist but rather into whether his actions gave the appearance of racial profiling, in violation of state law and police policies. The arbitrator concluded that the officer did, in fact, commit acts that gave the appearance of racial profiling. For 20 consecutive shifts in the summer of 2014, knowing that the trailer parks were predominantly Hispanic, the officer ran license plate numbers at one or the other trailer park. He used racial stereotypes to decide where to look because he assumed that trailer parks with large numbers of Hispanics would contain undocumented immigrants who could not have driver’s licenses. His actions had a disparate impact on Hispanics, who made up more than half of all stops the officer made during the period in question.

Also, officers who run a license plate and find something on the record are prohibited from proceeding against the driver if the driver is not the vehicle’s registered owner. For Hispanics only, the officer pursued drivers whom he knew were not the owners, for example, where the owner was a male and the driver was a female. For all of those reasons, the employer had just cause to terminate.

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