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Mpls. votes to scrap spitting, lurking laws amid concerns over racial disparities

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Minneapolis City Council members voted to repeal two ordinances that treat spitting and lurking as low-level crimes in response to concerns over racial disparities in how they are enforced.

The council voted by a 12-1 majority to repeal both ordinances at a meeting Friday morning – with council President Barbara Johnson the only "nay" in both votes.

It follows concerns expressed by civil rights groups such as the ACLU of Minnesota, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change that the ordinances were being used to target people of color, after arrest figures showed significant racial disparities.

Most council members agreed that repealing the ordinance was a step toward rebuilding public trust in authorities and improving equality in Minneapolis, with Ward 6 council member Abdi Warsame saying: "We need to understand there are sectors in our city that feel like the city is not theirs."

Among the main supporters of a repeal was council member Cam Gordon, who had spoken on Thursday about the need for police reforms, and described the two ordinances as upholding a "new Jim Crow," according to FOX 9. He told the meeting that 70 percent of people who call to report lurking are white, which he said showed there was a racial bias to the law.

Council member Johnson had previously indicated she would vote against repealing the spitting law, calling it a "disgusting habit" in a letter to the Star Tribune last week. She said she looked at lurking arrests and found clear signs police had probable cause to make an arrest.

In a statement, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges called the now-repealed laws antiquated and unnecessary, and thanked the council for "taking this important next step to make changes that help enable more equitable outcomes.”

The Business Journal reports the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce was against repealing the laws, saying in part they don't want the newly renovated Nicollet Mall to be tainted by spitting.

Racial disparity numbers

The push to trash the spitting and lurking laws stems from a recent report that found significant racial disparities in arrest rates for low-level crimes (that’s any offense with a fine of $3,000 or less and/or a year or less in jail) in Minneapolis.

The ACLU study found black people are 8.7 times more likely to be arrested than white people for such a crime; while American Indians are 8.6 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts.

The ACLU says spitting and lurking laws fall under that low-level arrest category.

According to the Star Tribune, police say the report is skewed because a small number of people tend to get arrested multiple times.

But Police Chief Janeé Harteau has acknowledged there are issues, and in a statement after Thursday's press conference, said she continues "to have open and candid conversations on race and policing on the local level."

A report put together by Gordon and fellow council member Blong Yang found the spitting ordinance was passed in 1898 mainly as a way to stop the spread of tuberculosis – something that isn't much of a threat anymore.

From 2011 through 2014, there were 29 citations issued for spitting. At least 13 of those cited were black – in 15 cases, the suspect's race was not identified.

For the lurking law, the duo's report says from 2009-2014, 59 percent of those arrested were black, and 8 percent were American Indian. Only 24 percent were white.

And strictly in 2014, only 22 percent of lurking cases actually resulted in a conviction. Thirty-five of the 61 closed cases were dismissed or not pursued by the city attorney's office.

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