By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer
GAYLORD — Fifty-nine percent of Gaylord officer Eric Boon’s tickets over the last year or so were issued to Latinos, who make up about 23 percent of the city’s population. The city’s other two full-time officers ticketed Latinos about 30 percent of the time.
What makes Boon different?
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which compiled these statistics, argues that Boon is selectively enforcing the law against Latinos. They say he camps in front of the Michael’s Foods egg-processing plant and runs the license plates of Latinos who work there, among other tactics.
Though the ACLU doesn’t use the phrase, it essentially accuses him of racial profiling.
Boon, who has worked in Gaylord since 2003, says he aggressively enforces traffic laws and knows the people who break them.
“I know the houses of people who don’t have driver’s licenses,” he said.
And if Latinos tend to be the people without valid licenses, Boon said, that’s not his fault.
The ACLU has not filed a civil rights lawsuit against Boon, though it filed one in February against the police department in an unrelated incident. Instead, the ACLU is continuing to watch the Gaylord Police Department, in part by continuing to make data requests.
Major changes appear unlikely.
The police reviewed Boon’s conduct and, with one exception, found nothing to merit discipline. That exception happened last summer, when dashboard cameras recorded Boon telling a Latino man he could make his family’s life a “living hell.”
Boon was given a written reprimand for the incident earlier this year.The small-town police department is frustrated by allegations that it believes were long ago settled and borne from the grudges of a disgruntled few in Gaylord.
“We have a good relationship with the Hispanic community,” said Donald Lannoye, the city’s attorney.
And there is some mistrust from both sides.
“Obviously, Mr. Bratlie has an agenda,” Lannoye said of Ian Bratlie, the ACLU attorney based in Mankato.
The Free Press was unable to find Hispanic residents who dealt with Boon and were willing to have their name be printed.
Soon after the ACLU established its Mankato office in 2011, it started hearing from immigration attorneys about issues in Gaylord, a city of about 2,300 people 25 miles north of Mankato. The city’s reactions to the ACLU’s data requests raised eyebrows, too.
“It was the only agency that seemed bent out of shape by data practices requests,” Bratlie said.
Quickly, they zeroed in on one officer: Eric Boon. Bratlie calls him an “outlier” because the department’s other officers cite Latinos roughly in proportion to their numbers.
This is not the first time that allegations of discriminatory policing have been leveled against Boon.
In 2008, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights heard a similar complaint brought against him by the advocacy group Centro Campesino. The department found the complaints had no probable cause.
Digging for data
Starting in late 2011, the ACLU began asking for data from the Gaylord Police Department. It asked for citations, police reports and dispatch records. Bratlie traveled to Gaylord to watch dashcam video and get a handle on who Boon was stopping, and why.
At first, the requests were met with timely responses. But delays of a week, then three weeks, became common.
Lannoye said the ACLU has unrealistic expectations for the timeliness of responses to data requests.
“We’re a small department,” he said.
Unlike its February lawsuit, which focuses on the treatment of one person, the ACLU’s complaints about Boon are based largely on data.
Boon’s citations were not only mostly levied against Latinos; the types of tickets issued also were different.
Sixty-nine percent of the Latinos’ citations were for status violations such as driving without a license and driving without insurance. These types of citations accounted for about half of the citations issued to white drivers.
“The obvious suggestion is that Officer Boon simply follows minority drivers to run plate information ...” the ACLU letter reads.
White drivers were more likely to be ticketed for speeding, which accounted for 33 percent of their tickets. Speeding only accounted for 8 percent of Latinos’ tickets.
Bratlie’s explanation for the difference is that these are different types of traffic offenses — speeding is obvious at a glance while license infractions require more initiative from a police officer. In this case, Bratlie believes that’s because Boon directs more attention toward Hispanic drivers.
Lannoye and Gaylord Police Chief Ken Mueller cast doubt on the ACLU’s data. For example, the ACLU claims that squad cameras show that Boon did not have probable cause for 34 percent of his stops of minority drivers.
“That’s just false,” Lannoye said. He said he’s reviewed the officer’s stops and “never had a problem.”
The city did not have an explanation for the citation data, which are less open to interpretation than reviews of tapes looking for probable cause.
“Look, there’s something abnormal in the numbers,” Bratlie said.
Boon’s side of the story
Boon has a different explanation.
Aside from generally criticizing the ACLU letter, Gaylord’s police chief and city attorney did not have much of an explanation for Boon’s propensity to ticket HIspanic people other than to emphasize they don’t racial profile.
“The city enforces the law equally,” Kevin McCann, Gaylord’s city administrator, said.
The officer himself, though, offers a spirited defense of his policing.
When a 31-year-old Boon came to Gaylord in 2003, drivers were unaccustomed to his style of policing, he said.
“I drive around. I stop cars. I make contacts,” he said. “They weren’t used to that prior to me coming to town. They weren’t getting stopped.”
Boon continues to be the department’s biggest traffic enforcer.
In Sibley County’s register of court actions for 2012, Boon’s badge number appears 46 times — more than twice as many as the next-highest officer, who appeared 22 times.
Boon says it’s true he tends to stop more cars and ticket more people than his colleagues. It’s just his style.
But he said he’s gone through racial profiling training twice and denies doing it.
“I know what racial profiling is. And I don’t racial profile.”
So why do his citations go disproportionately to Hispanic people?
One reason, he said, is that, at certain times of day and locations, the proportion of Hispanic people in Gaylord is much higher than 23 percent. The Michael’s Food plant, he said, employs hundreds of people and more than three-quarters are Hispanic.
When the shifts change, the percentage of Hispanic people on the roads can skyrocket, Boon said.
The other explanation is more complicated, and Boon gives the same example he gave Minnesota Public Radio News for a 2008 story about the Department of Human Rights charges.
Let’s say, Boon says, he stops 10 cars for, say, driving 42 mph in a 30-mph zone. And if they all have identification and a driver’s license, Boon said he’ll give 10 warnings.
“But, two, let’s say are Hispanics that do not have identification and have no driver’s license,” he said.
Which of them ought to get a ticket, he asks.
“If you’re valid and have insurance, you more than likely will get a warning from me no matter what nationality you are. But if you don’t have a license or any form of identification, you’ll get a ticket,” he wrote in an email.
In other words, Boon is arguing he’s enforcing the law equally but suggests Hispanic people are more likely to end up being the ones that don’t have a valid license.
“I ticket people who don’t have driver’s licenses,” he said. ... “I’m a cop that does his job, plain and simple.”
Boon also rejects the ACLU argument that he’s trying to pester people he believes are in the country illegally.
“That’s not my job, to enforce immigration law,” he said.
‘A living hell’
The only ACLU finding that got Boon in trouble with his superiors happened last summer, on the afternoon of July 7.
The video from Boon’s squad car begins with him driving and talking to a dispatcher about whether the owners of certain license plates have valid licenses. He stops at an intersection, and says, “What’s up?” to someone off-camera as the dispatcher reads off the names attached to the plates.
It’s difficult to hear what’s said off-camera, but a short time later Boon says, “Why am I circling your house? Because I get good signal there on my phone.”
A man says something off-camera, to which Boon responds: “You guys got issues. ... You actually think that I’m stalking you, Albert?
“I can make the summer a living hell for anyone driving away from this house.”
An argument ensues — and it’s impossible to hear what Albert is saying — but Boon eventually says, “Don’t get on my bad side because I can make it a living hell for you this summer and your family and your kids and everybody else.”
A short time later, he drives off.
Bratlie said the tapes don’t show this sort of behavior toward whites.
“It starts at hostile,” he said.
Mueller, the police chief, defended Boon, saying the family is biased against him and started the altercation by screaming at him and giving him the finger. In any case, Mueller said he’s spoken with Albert’s family and resolved the matter.
Lannoye, the city attorney, conceded it’s “not appropriate” to use that language. Lannoye said Boon and the chief had a talk about the incident, for which Boon received a written repriment.
Boon admits he could have handled the situation better.
“Was it the most professional thing to do? Absolutely not,” he said.
He said he’d been to that house 15 or 20 times in the past year.
“Every time you go there, you make sure you get your camera on. It always turns into an escalation,” he said.
It’s also one of those families that Boon says doesn’t have a driver’s license among them but continues to drive anyway.
A mostly clean file
In addition to the recent incident, Boon has one letter of discipline on his Gaylord file for “unsatisfactory work performance” and “not following police procedures” for an incident in November 2004, McCann, the city administrator, said. He said the reprimand didn’t include any other details.
Boon said it was a long time ago and he did not remember the event or why he was disciplined.
The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST Board, licenses the state’s 10,500 active full-time officers. There are no records of a board action against Boon’s license.
Tell it to the judge
On the night of May 26, 2012, Boon pulled over a man named Antonio Huerta for failing to stop at a stop sign, which Huerta denied. Boon asked for his insurance, and Huerta handed over a card for the wrong car.
Boon went back to his car and wrote a ticket for no proof of insurance.
Then Huerta found the correct insurance card, which had expired three days earlier.
Boon gave him the ticket and said he’d have to go to court to fix it. The court dismissed the charge.
Boon regrets giving the ticket.
“In hindsight, I should’ve ripped up the ticket,” he said. “The next time it happens I will do that.”
So how often do police in Gaylord give people tickets that end up dismissed by the courts?
Separately from the ACLU’s inquiry, The Free Press requested the final court disposition of all the offenses committed in Gaylord in 2012 in an effort to learn whether or not Boon’s citations of Hispanic people were being upheld by the courts at a rate equal to whites. A high rate of dismissals, compared to his colleagues, would suggest some of the charges were indeed frivolous.
The Free Press estimated ethnicity using surnames. In the few cases where it was unclear, the citation wasn’t used.
In 2012, there were 150 citations in Gaylord given by the department’s three full-time officers, the State Patrol and the Sibley County Sheriff’s Office that were usable as data. Dozens of citations weren’t counted because an officer’s badge number wasn’t listed.
Of the 150 citations, 65 went to Hispanic and 85 to whites (though some were of a different ethnicity, we’ll call them “white” for simplicity’s sake).
Boon accounted for about two-thirds of citations given to Hispanic people, and about one-fifth of citations given to whites.
The racial correlations were even stronger when it came to how Boon’s cases were handled by the courts.
In total, 48 percent of the Hispanics’ citations were dismissed in court, compared to 29 percent for whites. These figures do not include alternative sentences, one common form of which involves a dismissal of the charge if no similar crimes are committed in the following year.
For the officers and jurisdictions besides Boon, it was difficult to find a correlation between race and outcome of a case, if only because there were so many fewer citations.
In total, the others had a conviction to dismissal ratio of about 3 to 1 for both races, meaning one ticket was dismissed for every three convictions. But that figure has to be taken with a grain of salt because there weren’t much data to go around. The non-Boon group only had five Hispanic citations dismissed among them.
Boon’s ratio, though, was in the opposite direction — of his 43 citations against Hispanic people, 25 were dismissals and 18 were convictions. For whites ticketed by Boon, six convictions and four dismissals were recorded.
Put another way, among the tickets given to Hispanic people and dismissed by the courts, Boon accounted for more than three-quarters. This supports the ACLU’s argument that Boon is citing Hispanics with citations that don’t hold up to judicial scrutiny.
Assuming the ACLU’s data are valid, there are, in the end, only a couple of explanations. Either Boon targets Hispanics for extra enforcement, or Boon enforces the law equally and Hispanics commit more crimes, or at least more of a certain type. Or some combination of the two, of course.
The 2008 ruling from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which found the previous complaints against Boon unsupported, suggested that “socio-economic” differences between whites and Hispanics could lead to the focus on Hispanic people.
According to the 2010 census, the average age of Hispanics in Gaylord is 19.6, compared to 40.8 for whites. The estimated per-capita income for whites was $21,800. For Hispanics, it was $7,604.
When the question was posed that way to the city’s police chief and city attorney, neither would contend that Hispanics are committing more of a certain type of crime.
Bratlie rejects that hypothesis. He said in an email that Boon chooses to stop more Hispanics, suggesting that race is a factor.
He writes: “When officers have discretion, their racial and ethnic biases can easily come out in the decisions about what offenses to focus on, who to stop and the way they are treated when they are stopped.”
Bratlie also noted the discrepancy between Boon and the other officers in Gaylord.
A January letter from the city to the ACLU states that many of the group’s recommendations “do seem helpful and appropriate.”
Those recommendations include changing police cameras so the audio and times stamps work, record the race of people stopped by police, more training, outreach to Latinos and the hiring of a bilingual officer.
“We believe that in the future most of your recommendations will be able to be addressed,” the letter states.
The ACLU also recommended formal discipline for Boon.
Though it disciplined Boon for the July confrontation, it appears unlikely to take any action on the meat of the ACLU’s complaint — the alleged racial profiling.
So, overall, little has changed. The ACLU is still concerned and the city stands behind Boon’s brand of traffic enforcement.