BEMIDJI, Minn. – In this neck of northern Minnesota, some Indians complain of being stopped for DWI — meaning "Driving While Indian" — a sly way of saying they were pulled over for no good reason.
Behind the humor is anger over what they say is racial profiling (search) of Indians by police and sheriff's deputies.
Though authorities deny any discrimination, the American Civil Liberties Union (search) of Minnesota has opened its first office outside the Twin Cities, solely to gather profiling complaints.
"This is a situation that stinks in Minnesota," said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota ACLU. "They get stopped at a little higher percentage than whites, searched at a higher percentage, arrested at a little higher percentage. At every opportunity where discretion can enter into it, the people of color lose."
Law officers across the region say they simply ticket or arrest people who break the law.
"I can assure you that in my experience in three years as chief of police I have not seen any racial profiling by my department or the sheriff's department," said Bruce Preece, the Bemidji police chief. "We do not condone it."
In Cass County, where Indians made up 11 percent of the population in 1999 but accounted for more than half the arrests, County Attorney Earl Maus offered a reason: the poverty of much of the Indian population. "People who live in poverty generally have a higher rate of crime," he said.
Minnesota is not the first state to hear such complaints. In South Dakota, Indians have complained that officers were using a law against hanging objects from rear-view mirrors to pull over drivers with dangling eagle feathers or spirit catchers.
An analysis by the University of Minnesota and the nonprofit Council on Crime and Justice (search) of traffic stops in 2002 found that in cities and counties bordering the Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe reservations, Indians were stopped and searched at disproportionately higher rates than white drivers, though the rate of finding contraband in an Indian vehicle was no higher.
Arrest figures from six area counties in 1999 — the latest data publicly available in such detail — showed that Indians accounted for 32 percent of arrests while making up just 12 percent of the population.
But Preece said the traffic stop analysis underestimated the number of Indians who drive through his city.
The ACLU hired a coordinator, Audrey Thayer, in May to look into the profiling complaints. The office opened in Bemidji on Sept. 7 in a two-year, $190,000 effort.
Thayer, a 52-year-old Ojibwe woman, spends most of her time seeking out stories. She has canvassed the poor at a soup kitchen, questioned Indians waiting to see relatives in jail, and handed out fliers to teens hanging out late at night.
Thayer said she often hears of law enforcement officers who use feeble excuses, like burned-out license plate lights, to stop and question Indian drivers.
Tom Johnson, president of the Council on Crime and Justice, said one reason Indians are being pulled over more may be that law enforcement officers believe that Indians — because of their high rates of alcoholism — are more likely to drink and drive.
Also, because many Indians are impoverished, they may be more likely to drive poorly maintained cars with broken equipment, and that may be giving police excuses to pull them over, he said.
Maus, the prosecutor in Cass County, said of the ACLU project: "If they can come in here and show us some way to do things better, we'd be grateful."