FSU researcher finds links between police searches and race in Minneapolis

Assistant Professor James E. Wright II.
Assistant Professor James E. Wright II.

When looking for cities to conduct research on the intersection of police behavior, race and location, James Wright II, an assistant professor of public administration at Florida State University, didn’t have many options. 

It was 2016 and, at that time, Minneapolis was the only city that had publicly available information about police stops with the detailed, longitudinal and latitudinal information Wright required to plot police stops block by block. 

Four years later, Wright watched along with the rest of the nation as Minneapolis became the epicenter of racial protests of the treatment of people of color by police. The protests were sparked when George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after a police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. 

“We were looking at police stops in Minneapolis not knowing it would be the hotbed it has become,” Wright said. “We were glad that we had data available.” 

The study was published in the July issue of the journal Public Performance & Management Review. 

It considers the effect of police officers’ decisions when performing vehicle stops and conducting vehicle or person searches. In addition to mining demographic census data, Wright and his colleagues analyzed data from individual police stops in the segregated neighborhoods of Minneapolis on a block-by-block basis

Wright and his co-authors Dongfang Gaozhao, a public administration doctoral candidate at FSU, and Meagan A. Snow, the Geospatial Data Visualization Librarian for the Geography & Map Division of the Library of Congress, found that majority African American areas of high segregation have more vehicle or person searches than other parts of the city.

Those findings also included that, as the percentage of African Americans and African immigrants in a neighborhood increases, so too does the likelihood that a vehicle or person will be searched during a police stop. 

In majority African American neighborhoods, the likelihood of a vehicle or person being searched during a police stop is 41 percent greater,” Wright said. “And within neighborhoods with predominantly east African immigrants, the likelihood a vehicle stop resultin a person being searched was about 70 percent greater.” 

Wright said quantifyingidentifying and putting these findings to use in the form of meaningful policing reform is the next challenge. 

“The first way for us to move past discrimination and any sort of bias is to acknowledge and quantify the problem if we can,” he said. “In this case, we can identify and quantify the extent that bias exists, then we can go to communitiesunderstanding and facilitating how we can do better as public servants.”

Wright is the recent recipient of a McKnight Fellowship, which he says will go toward funding more research on the relationship between policing and discrimination.