ACLU challenges state cops over racial disparities in stops

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DETROIT — Two Black motorists who had a tense two-hour encounter with white troopers and drug-sniffing dogs filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Michigan State Police, demanding that the agency get outside help to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops.

State police have acknowledged an increase in the percentage of stops involving Black drivers. But the director, Col. Joe Gasper, has failed to act, according to the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

“Racially motivated vehicular stops are not innocuous encounters,” the federal lawsuit states. “Rather, they are unconstitutional seizures that increase the potential for confrontation, police violence, fatality, unlawful arrest and compounding constitutional violations.”

Black people make up 14% of Michigan’s population but accounted for 21.5% of stops by state police in 2020, up from 17.3% in 2017, according to the department’s own data.

Camara Sankofa, 50, and Shanelle Thomas, 35, said they were pulled over in Oak Park, on the Oakland County-Wayne County border, as they traveled home together from work in 2019.

A trooper accused Sankofa of running a red light, though no tickets were issued when the stop finally ended about two hours later. In the meantime, two dogs searched the car. Three troopers were at the scene.

Now, nearly two years later, Sankofa said the incident has become a “chilling memory of a racist traffic stop that left a scar.”

He said he was mentored by police officers as a younger man and has family in law enforcement.

“I knew I did nothing wrong,” said Sankofa, who works in education and wears a round kufi cap common in Africa. “There was no reason why I should have been pulled over other than driving while Black.”

State police declined to comment on the traffic stop, but Gasper said in a written statement that troopers are barred from detaining anyone solely because of race or ethnicity.

“Allegations of improper traffic stops are taken seriously,” he said.

Michigan State University researchers are helping state police develop a dashboard so supervisors can identify disparities. Gasper said another contractor is going to be hired to analyze traffic stop processes and give advice.

Gasper, who was appointed state police director by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, accused the ACLU of “pushing their own agenda” and fueling “the divide between the public and law enforcement.”

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