The Potluck

St. Paul police chief says lawmaker owes his officer an apology for alleging racial profiling

By: - July 9, 2021 5:10 pm

John Thompson, a friend of Philando Castile and police reform activist, leads the crowd in chants after the memorial service for George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell in a social media post on Friday said he is “dismayed and disappointed” by a state lawmaker’s response to being pulled over by an officer on Sunday, saying the traffic stop was justified and not racial profiling.

Axtell said his sergeant had every right to pull over state Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, on July Fourth, because he was working a traffic safety detail and the lawmaker was driving without a front license plate, which is illegal in Minnesota. The incident was first reported by the Pioneer Press on Thursday.

Axtell pushed back in a Facebook post Friday in which he said Thompson owes the sergeant an apology.

“I was shocked to hear that driver accuse the sergeant of making the stop based on race,” he wrote. “Rather than taking responsibility for his own decisions and actions, he attempted to deflect, cast aspersions and deny any wrongdoing.”

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the state’s trade group for police officers, also pushed back on Thompson on Friday, releasing a statement calling on him to agree to release the body-cam footage of the incident, which they say he’s declined to do.

“Rep. Thompson’s signature issue at the state Legislature was advocating for rapid release of police officer’s body camera footage. Now he’s blocking the public release of body camera footage of his own incident with law enforcement this past week,” MPPOA Executive Director Brian Peters wrote. “As a public official, it’s hypocritical and irresponsible. Constituents have the right to see how their legislator conducted himself, particularly when he made such strong claims about what happened during the traffic stop.”

During a Tuesday memorial for Thompson’s friend Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a police officer after being pulled over in 2016, Thompson accused St. Paul police of racially profiling him by pulling him over, saying he got a “driving-while-Black” ticket.

According to Saint Paul Police Public Information Officer Steve Linders, a police sergeant pulled Thompson over for not having a front license plate near the intersection of Seventh Street East and Wacouta Street. When he asked Thompson for his driver’s license, Thompson said he was a state representative and gave him a Wisconsin driver’s license, according to Linders.

After the sergeant learned Thompson’s Minnesota license was suspended, he issued him a citation for driving after suspension, and then Thompson accused the sergeant of racially profiling him, according to Linders. The sergeant reiterated that he made the stop because the vehicle didn’t have a front license plate.

Minnesota Department of Public Safety spokesman Doug Neville said Thompson’s driving privileges were suspended in April 2019 due to unpaid child support in Ramsey County.

“Mr. Thompson does not hold a Minnesota driver’s license and has never had a driver’s license issued by Minnesota,” Neville said in an email. “You can have action taken on your driving record in Minnesota even if you do not hold a valid license. Mr. Thompson was reinstated Wednesday after taking care of the child support issue.”

Thompson denied owing child support, but declined further comment to the Reformer. Court records show he was ordered by Ramsey County to pay child support in 2010.

“I don’t wanna give no more fuel to this fire,” Thompson said. “I’m not gonna go toe-to-toe with Todd Axtell.”

Axtell wrote that he talked to the sergeant and watched the body-worn camera footage, which he said shows the stop “had absolutely nothing to do with the driver’s race.” He said the officer was working on a Toward Zero Deaths traffic safety detail, a grant-funded state initiative. One of its goals is to ensure compliance with traffic laws.

“What it did involve was a public servant doing what the community asks of him,” Axtell wrote. “Simply put, the traffic stop was by the books. What happened afterwards was anything but.”

Public records show Thompson has been pulled over by Minnesota cops for a similar offenses before — and studies show Black men are more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers.

He was cited by St. Paul police for having expired registration and driving an unregistered vehicle/without plates in 2011; cited by the State Patrol in Duluth for having a cracked windshield in 2002; and cited by Duluth Police in 2000 for not having a license plate light.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.