Police release traffic stop video of Minn. lawmaker who alleged racial profiling
After reviewing the footage, police chief Todd Axtell said the lawmaker owes his sergeant an apology
By Mara H. Gottfried
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Police released body camera footage Tuesday after a St. Paul legislator said last week he was racially profiled during a traffic stop, as critics continued to question the legality of Rep. John Thompson having a Wisconsin driver's license as an elected official in Minnesota.
The video, which included two short interactions between Thompson and a sergeant, showed Thompson telling the sergeant to stop racially profiling Black men. The officer, who is white, told him he was not profiling.
Thompson, a DFLer representing the East Side, said in a statement Monday that it was within the power of the St. Paul Police Department to release the video and he wasn't a barrier to it.
Police Chief Todd Axtell released the video under a provision of state law that says information, such as body camera footage, that wouldn't typically be public can be released to "dispel widespread rumor," said Steve Linders, a police spokesman. He consulted with the city attorney before doing so.
As the subject of the video, Thompson could have requested the video and publicly released it himself. The police department had not received an official request from Thompson as of Tuesday afternoon.
Thompson said on Monday that the video wouldn't show the officer doing "anything that isn't by the book, but the issue is we need to rewrite the book," Thompson said. "I do not know the officer who pulled me over, and I have no reason to believe they have any hate towards me specifically. Officers do, however, work in a system that has allowed these too often pretextual traffic stops to continue despite tragic consequences."
Thompson was pulled over for not having a front license plate and he was cited for driving after his driving privileges were suspended for owing child support. He said Monday that there was "a minor child support issue, one which was resolved long ago. I owe $0 in child support."
Axtell said Friday that Thompson owes an apology to the sergeant who pulled him over. He said he watched the body camera footage after hearing Thompson speak at a memorial on July 6, during which he said, "You can still get driving-while-Black tickets in the state — as a matter of fact, in St. Paul. Let's just call this what it is."
Axtell said the video showed that "this stop, made at about 1:20 in the morning, had absolutely nothing to do with the driver's race. What it did involve was a public servant doing what the community asks of him."
WHAT THE VIDEO SHOWS
The video from the July 4 traffic stop in downtown St. Paul shows the initial encounter lasted just under a minute. The first words exchanged weren't captured — there was no sound for the first 30 seconds of the video because body cameras capture video, but not audio as they are buffering.
Thompson told the sergeant, "I'm actually the current state representative in this district right here, man." (The location of the stop — near the intersection of East Wacouta Street and East Seventh Street, is not in Thompson's district, 67A, which covers much of St. Paul's East Side.)
Thompson presented a Wisconsin driver's license and the sergeant asked him, "With a Wisconsin license?"
Thompson responded, "Yeah, with a Wisconsin license. I'm State Representative John Thompson."
In Monday's statement, Thompson said he informed the sergeant he was a state representative because of "the desire to be treated with respect and be able to drive away from this interaction safely."
The sergeant went back to his squad car to check whether Thompson's license was valid and to confirm his identity. The police department muted the sound at times because "law enforcement-sensitive information" was being dispatched about an incident initially reported as a kidnapping and aggravated assault; the sergeant in the squad wasn't talking and the audio wasn't related to the traffic stop of Thompson, according to Linders.
When the sergeant returned to Thompson, he said, "You're suspended in Minnesota."
Thompson said, "No," and the sergeant told him, "That's what the computer says."
Thompson asked why the sergeant pulled him over.
"No front plate and then the way you took off from the light back there," he responded.
"I'm too old to run from the police, man," Thompson told him. "You profiled me because you looked me dead in the face and I got a ticket for driving while Black. You pulled me over because you saw a Black face in this car, brother. And there's no way in hell I'm taking off with you behind me. ... You looked in this car, and busted a U-turn and got behind my car, and that's the reason."
"It's on camera, sir," the sergeant said.
"Look, what I'm saying is what you're doing is wrong to Black men," Thompson said. "And you need to stop that. ... Stop racially profiling Black men in their cars, sir."
The sergeant told him he wasn't profiling and left.
The details surrounding Thompson's child-support payments remain unclear.
A Minnesota court record shows Thompson was ordered to pay child support in 2010. There were no more recent filings that indicated he owed money.
A spokesman for the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, which handles child-support matters, said they can't discuss a specific case due to the state data practices act.
Minnesota law specifies that when a court order for child support is in place, if a person falls three months behind on payments and is not in compliance with a written payment agreement, their driver's license "shall" be suspended. Unless someone in the case filed a motion or requested a hearing to contest the action to suspend the driver's license, the court file would not reflect that someone was past due on payments or that an action had been taken to suspend the person's driver's license, according to the county attorney's office.
WISCONSIN DRIVER'S LICENSE AT ISSUE
Thompson's critics have continued their offensive against him, honing in on the fact that he renewed his Wisconsin driver's license in November 2020 — the same month his name appeared on the ballot in St. Paul.
On Monday, Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, sent a letter to Wisconsin Attorney General John Kaul, a Democrat, requesting his office open a potential perjury investigation into Thompson for renewing his license in that state in the event he wasn't a resident there.
Only Wisconsin residents can hold Wisconsin driver's licenses, and only Minnesota residents can run for election in Minnesota. It appears that in both cases, Thompson would have been required to attest to his residence in the respective state. In other words, the situation has raised the possibility that Thompson knowingly falsified a government record in one of the two states.
Thompson on Monday said, "I live and work in St. Paul." He said he previously lived in Wisconsin, his license hadn't previously posed an issue, and he would be changing it to a Minnesota license.
Meanwhile, Minnesota state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R- Big Lake, who chairs the Senate committee overseeing elections, sent a letter to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon requesting details on how his office vetted Thompson's candidate filing papers, which require him to attest to being a Minnesota resident.
Simon responded Tuesday with a letter noting the squishiness of Minnesota laws in such matters. State law only requires his office to attempt to verify if a candidate truly lives where they say, in offices with residency requirements such as a House seat, if a registered voter requests it. None did, Simon said.
" The Legislature has chosen not to require the Office to independently verify the true residence of each candidate filing for office, Simon's letter reads, adding, "These laws have been used to provide added safety and security to candidates since 2010, when
you and other members of the Legislature voted in favor of the bill."
Simon added that if a candidate knowingly provided false information on their affidavit of candidacy required to get on the ballot, that would be a crime, perhaps perjury — but one under the purview of a law enforcement agency, not the secretary of state's office.
Thus far, Republican elected officials have been relatively restrained in their reactions, largely allowing the situation embroiling Thompson to play itself out in the media — and with critical commentary coming from fellow Democrats like Gov. Tim Walz, who said the video should be released, and DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin, who said Sunday that he was "disappointed" with Thompson.
There are official channels Republicans can take. The most obvious and common in such situations is for two or more House members to file a form ethics complaint with House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
On Tuesday, Hortman said no such complaints had been filed on the matter.
Hortman herself has numerous internal points of leverage on House members, such as stripping them of committee assignments.
In her statement, she appeared to address the idea of unilaterally wielding her authority: "As in other instances of alleged member misconduct, in the absence of a formal ethics complaint, in my role as Speaker I will work with counsel to thoroughly investigate the law and facts, compare the alleged misconduct to prior allegations of wrongdoing by members of the Minnesota House and the resultant consequences, and act accordingly."
(c)2021 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)