Racial profiling was not involved in the traffic stop by a Park Rapids police officer that was discussed at a Feb. 15 immigration forum.
The Park Rapids Area League of Women Voters forum, "Bringing It Home: Immigration in Our Area" included a public comment section where Hubbard County resident Michael Rak stated he believed his wife was stopped because she is Hispanic.
Park Rapids Police Chief Jeff Appel set up a meeting with Rak and Carolyn White from the League of Women Voters at the Enterprise to share information and resolve this issue.
After meeting with Appel, Rak said after he now realizes the traffic stop had nothing to do with his wife's race but was due to the tail lights not being manually turned on.
Rak wrote a letter of apology to the police department.
"My wife's vehicle, a 2013 Ford Escape, has the feature of driving lights that turn on upon ignition, but only include the headlamps and not the tail lights, which is unusual for most vehicles and a condition my wife was unaware of. This vehicle does not automatically sense the ambient light and switch on the tail lights. At the time of the stop, she felt that the degree of light present did not warrant the need for turning on the manual light switch," he wrote.
"Pulled over by the Pizza Hut, she was told the car had a tail light out. Upon running her license in the Minnesota Division of Motor Vehicles it was shown that a previous license in Texas invalidated her Minnesota driver's license. I have since determined that this was an error in the Minnesota DMV computer system and is part of the confusion and discord with the department's new computer system."
When his wife returned home, Rak found the tail lights were fully functional.
"Considering the current national anti-immigrant fervor," Rak wrote, "we incorrectly assumed that this incident was related to immigration enforcement actions against those of Hispanic heritage. I now regret my statements that reflect that assumption and wish to apologize to the officer, who was polite and professional, and the Park Rapids Police Department. Chief Jeff Appel is especially to be commended for reaching out to resolve the matter with a forthright and caring attitude to assure me that his department's personnel do not profile persons based on race or heritage and that everyone is welcomed in Park Rapids."
"Part of it is a natural reaction," Appel said. "If my wife came home and told me she'd been pulled over, I'd be like 'I know those tail lights are working.' What we want to correct is race had absolutely nothing to do with that traffic stop. The traffic stop was conducted professionally."
"My wife does attest to that," Rak agreed.
Rak wrote that, in hindsight, he should have contacted the Park Rapids Police Department the next day in order to review the video of the incident and resolve the matter.
"I don't want her to be afraid, I don't want anyone to be afraid," Appel said. "I don't want it in the paper saying we're racially profiling when we're not. If someone does have a concern I want to know about it. That type of thing has happened to people, but I'm confident it's not happening here. I don't want to create any more fear. It's important that the integrity of the officers that work for the Park Rapids Police not be questioned because of this."
"I totally agree with that," Rak said. "I'm a little embarrassed by the whole thing. I hope that as I've gotten older I've gotten a little wiser, but I'm not infallible. I still make mistakes, but at least I hope now I know how to correct them."
Traffic stop statistics
"We do not tolerate racial profiling," Appel said. "If it's happening, we would want to know so we can address it. In this case we were pretty quickly able to determine this was not the case."
Appel said his officers hold themselves to a high standard, following the department's values of respect, integrity, professionalism and excellence.
"At each department meeting we touch on our core values for the department," Appel said. "I feel like our people live up to these core values. We take them seriously. They're good people out there trying to make the community a safe place," he said. "I feel badly the meeting (immigration forum) happened the way it did, but we can work together so in the future people know to come to us."
"I hope something positive comes out of this when this comes out that people can talk to each other and lessen that fear (of the police) over all," White said.
Appel provided statistics of all traffic stops by the Park Rapids Police Department in January. Out of the 199 total stops, 88.94 percent were white, 3.52 percent Hispanic, 2.01 percent Native American, 2.01 unknown, 1.51 percent Black, 1.51 percent Asian and .51 percent other (non-Latino). He explained that with major highways going through Park Rapids, those statistics include people who drive through Park Rapids, but don't live in this community.
Direct communication encouraged
"Law enforcement is a difficult profession," Appel said. "We do our best to provide professional service to everyone. We want everyone to be safe regardless of what your race is or if you're an immigrant from a different country."
There is a complaint form at the police office that can be filled out anonymously if a person is not comfortable including their name.
"I'm responsible for the police department and in my eyes I know what's going on, but I also appreciate being made aware of any concerns,"Appel said.
He encouraged anyone who feels they have not been treated fairly by the Park Rapids police to come and share their concerns so they can be addressed.
"Myself and Mr. Rak, when we actually talked, figured out what happened and resolved it pretty quickly," Appel said. "What I want to stress is the Park Rapids police department takes great pride in their relationship with the community, and that's the whole community. We want the trust of everyone and we don't want anyone to feel the way you felt. So the positive that can come out of this is everyone knowing they can reach out to us. If anyone ever has an issue, they can call us and we're going to try to resolve it."
In any interactions with the police, if the person involved doesn't speak English, the officer is able to connect to the Language Line where a certified interpreter is available in many languages.
"It's another tool for our officers," Appel said. "We do everything we can to help a non-English speaking person whether it's a traffic stop or to report a crime."
White said that she and Appel have discussed the possibility of a League of Minnesota Women Voters forum with a panel of law enforcement officers. Appel said he is also open to attend other events to build relationships with minorities in the community — all they need to do is extend the invitation.
"I applaud the idea and anything to get more multicultural diversity in this town," Rak said. "This town needs these young families coming here and prospering in this area. They start at the bottom but they're hard working family people and they'll do this community proud if given the chance."