DETROIT – Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) settled a lawsuit filed against the Michigan State Police (MSP) on behalf of two of many African Americans who MSP has stopped in racially disproportionate numbers. This lawsuit is just the latest in a series of ACLU of Michigan advocacy efforts over the last six years, urging and moving the MSP to work with external experts to identify the causes of their racially disproportionate traffic stops. Due to the ACLU of Michigan’s advocacy, the MSP now transparently documents the race of drivers in their traffic stop data. After the ACLU’s lawsuit was filed, MSP hired a firm to analyze and determine why troopers disproportionately pull over drivers of color.
“When racial patterns were detected in traffic stops, we immediately urged the MSP to engage experts to find out why it was happening,” said Mark Fancher, ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Project staff attorney. “When they refused to do it, we were concerned that these disparities may be the result of racial profiling or other forms of discrimination, so we sued. This settlement represents an important opportunity to reform policing.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of an African American couple who troopers pulled over, falsely accusing them of running a red light, then detained for nearly 90 minutes while troopers and K-9's searched and ravaged their vehicle without probable cause. They were never ticketed as a result of this traffic stop.
Due to reports of similar traffic stops of Black motorists, since 2016 the ACLU of Michigan investigated, advocated, and filed Freedom of Information Act requests. These efforts led to the MSP better recording and publicly sharing its traffic stop data and hiring experts to establish that MSP’s traffic stops are racially disproportionate.
The comprehensive analysis into the MSP’s policing is expected to yield reports and recommendations to MSP based on direct observation of the troopers, interviews, and review of videos of traffic stops. As part of the settlement, the ACLU will also be able to confer with the outside analysts tasked with identifying why the MSP disproportionately pull over people of color. Fancher said the ACLU will encourage experts to pay special attention to the following:
- MSP’s routine use of “warning stops” as a method of stopping and engaging with motorists who have committed minor traffic violations.
- MSP’s practice of “going beyond the stop” to determine whether motorists may be engaged in criminal activities that were not the basis for the initial stop.
- MSP’s consideration of the number of stops made by troopers as part of performance evaluations.
“These practices and others easily lend themselves to purposeful racial discrimination, or discrimination caused by implicit bias,” Fancher said. “If a trooper knows their performance will be judged by the number of stops they make, there’s a good chance they will try to bolster their record by stopping people they regard as powerless or who would not be considered credible if they complain about improper stops, including people of color.”
MSP data shows that while African Americans make up only 14% of Michigan’s population, they accounted for 17% of all traffic stops in 2017, 19% of traffic stops in 2018, and 20% of traffic stops in 2019.
“The investigation resulting from this case may be key to exposing whether racial bias or other improper factors underlie the disparity in police stops, and, if so, how to end it,” said Nakisha Chaney, an ACLU of Michigan Cooperating Attorney who also represented the Plaintiffs. “In any event, the years of Michigan State Police troopers disproportionately pulling over drivers of color must end now.”
“I am a Black man in America, and while I’m not anti-police, I know firsthand that any encounter with police can cost me my life,” said Camara Sankofa, ACLU of Michigan client and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We celebrate today’s settlement – it won’t erase the terror that my partner Shanelle and I endured while troopers pulled us over for no reason, but it will hold the Michigan State Police accountable. We are grateful that the State Police will be working with experts, including the ACLU of Michigan, to determine what is causing racial disparities in policing and to recommend how these problems can be addressed.”
“I understand that being an officer is a difficult job, but they must understand the fear they instill in us every day because of the countless experiences throughout the nation of Black people being pulled over, detained, beaten, and killed simply for existing,” said Ms. Thomas, also an ACLU of Michigan client and plaintiff in the case.
Watch an ACLU video of the traffic stop and our clients’ interview: https://youtu.be/pMm69L1MzGc
The lawsuit, Sankofa v. Rose, was filed in 2021 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In addition to Fancher and Chaney, the plaintiffs are represented by ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Dan Korobkin.