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Minn. Mayor Wants Unarmed Civilians, Not Police, To Enforce Traffic Laws

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The mayor of Brooklyn Center, Minn., is pushing police reform in a very different way. He wants unarmed civilians and not the police to enforce traffic laws. This proposed change comes a month after a white police officer killed a Black man named Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: On April 11, Officer Kim Potter pulled over Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, a diverse community of 30,000 bordering Minneapolis. Police say it was because of expired plates. Wright's mother says it was a dangling air freshener. As Potter and another officer tried to arrest the 20-year-old on an outstanding firearms warrant, he broke free and got back in his car. On body camera video, Potter is heard shouting, Taser, but instead, she grabs her 9 mm gun. The gunshot is edited out of this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM POTTER: (Yelling) Taser, Taser, Taser.

SEPIC: Potter, who was a police officer for 26 years, resigned and is charged with manslaughter. That killing led to a week of demonstrations, including violent clashes with law enforcement. Security fencing still surrounds Brooklyn Center police headquarters. Today, things are quiet as a crew of workers repairs a looted dollar store across the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

SEPIC: At neighboring Scoreboard Pizza, which was untouched, owner Jim Johnson says Wright should still be alive.

JIM JOHNSON: They should have let that young man just go. I mean, expired tabs - I mean, is that worth pulling over someone when you already know that they have a weapons violation?

SEPIC: Johnson, a lifelong Brooklyn Center resident, says police could have made the arrest later. He's skeptical of Mayor Mike Elliott's proposal. The mayor wants a, quote, "unarmed civilian traffic enforcement department" to handle all minor non-moving violations, such as expired plates and broken taillights. Elliott is pushing council members to approve his plan soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE ELLIOTT: We need to do it as if there was an emergency and people were at the PD protesting again. We need to have that level of urgency.

SEPIC: Brooklyn Center is not the first community to consider this idea. A council member in Minneapolis has proposed something similar. And Berkeley, Calif., is exploring ways to have unarmed transportation workers hand out citations.

DAVID THOMAS: There's no way you could pay me to do that.

SEPIC: That's David Thomas, a retired police officer who now teaches criminal justice at Florida Gulf Coast University.

THOMAS: You're asking unarmed civilians to approach a car, and you have no idea what's in that car or who's driving that car. Traffic stops are probably one of the most dangerous things that a cop will do because you never know what you're approaching.

SEPIC: But University of Arkansas criminologist Jordan Blair Woods challenges that long-held conventional wisdom. His research shows that violence against police during routine stops is rare. In a decade's worth of data from Florida, he found just one assault per 7,000 stops. Far fewer resulted in serious injury or death.

JORDAN BLAIR WOODS: Tens of millions of traffic stops occur every single year, and typically, what we focus on in the media and what we focus on in training are these rare cases that are escalating into serious violence against officers.

SEPIC: Woods agrees that one way to avoid tragedies like the killing of Daunte Wright is to deploy civilian traffic enforcement. But even if Brooklyn Center's leaders approve the proposal soon, it's not likely to be implemented immediately. That's because in Minnesota, state law prohibits anyone but police from pulling over drivers. For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBSTANTIAL'S "WISHING WELL (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.