A traffic stop is the most common way people interact with police.

Determining whether those interactions are affected by the color of a person’s skin was the goal behind a request from Councilor Jenny Van Sickle to look at the demographics of traffic citations issued in Superior.

“As someone with a transportation background, I really wanted to know how our police force interacted with people out in our community,” said Van Sickle, a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Communities of Color.

After a review of the Superior Police Department’s overall practices and policies in June, the Commission got a glimpse of the demographics related to traffic citations Wednesday, Sept. 16.

Citing 2018 Census estimates that show Superior’s population is 91.6% white, 1.8% Black, 1.5% Native American or Alaska Native, Van Sickle said, “We should be able to roughly expect citations to reflect those same proportions.”

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Superior 2nd District Councilor Jenny Van Sickle (Courtesy of Jenny Van Sickle)
Superior 2nd District Councilor Jenny Van Sickle (Courtesy of Jenny Van Sickle)

However, an analysis of the 3,142 traffic citations issued by the Superior Police Department in 2019 showed two racial groups received traffic citations at a greater rate than their representation in the city’s population.

Native Americans received 3.1% of the citations issued, and the disparity was even greater for Black people who received 5.9% of the citations issued.

Data shows 98 citations were issued to Native Americans and 184 were issued to Black people.

While 2,784 tickets were issued to white people, it only represented 88.6% of all citations issued.

Data shows Asian Americans make up 1.4% of the city’s population, but they accounted for less than 1% of the citations issued, and Hispanic people, at 1.9% of the population, received 1.3% of the citations

“Our department’s fairly active,” Chief Nicholas Alexander said. “We do have a U.S. highway running through and another state highway. We border Duluth, and we have two interstate bridges that go in between. Our community has a lot of transition in it, people who come from different places.”

Superior Chief of Police Nicholas Alexander speaks about policing Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order during a press conference outside of the police station in Superior Tuesday, March 24. Speaking to the Mayor's Commission on Communities of Color, Alexander said data on racial disparities with the city's traffic citations doesn't take into account where drivers live. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Superior Chief of Police Nicholas Alexander speaks about policing Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order during a press conference outside of the police station in Superior Tuesday, March 24. Speaking to the Mayor's Commission on Communities of Color, Alexander said data on racial disparities with the city's traffic citations doesn't take into account where drivers live. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The chief said the data doesn’t take into consideration other factors, such as where people live. "A notable percentage" of Superior's traffic citations are Duluth residents or people who live outside of Superior, he said, which means those citations shouldn't be compared to the city's demographic data.

The data also doesn’t include information on all traffic stops, some of which end with a warning and no citation being issued, Alexander said.

Van Sickle pushed back, particularly on the higher rate of stops among Black people.

“Having a ratio of 3-1 is not where we want to be,” she said.

Alexander said more research needs to be done before officials consider a solution.

“In a perfect world, you would expect them to be fairly in line with the actual demographics in the community, but it isn’t significantly impacted by that,” Alexander said. “I agree that there’s more there, but more research has to go into it before there’s any real concrete solution.”

While Superior doesn't have "tragedies against communities of color" as often as bigger cities, Van Sickle said officials should continue to look at the data available to see if there are opportunities for improvement.

“It’s very important to examine the pieces that we have to ensure we’re doing the best job that we can … looking in a mirror to see if we like what we see," she said.