ST PAUL, Minn. — The St. Paul Police Department released body camera footage on Tuesday of a traffic stop earlier this month of Rep. John Thompson. The stop has garnered attention because Thompson still had a Wisconsin driver's license despite being a Minnesota resident – and lawmaker. The stop was also referenced at a rally by Thompson, claiming to be racially profiled.
Late Monday, Thompson acknowledged that his constituents deserved an explanation days after questions began to swirl around whether he lived in Minnesota or inside his district following a traffic stop.
"As much as I hate how recent coverage of this issue has been about me, I recognize I have an obligation to my constituents, and owe them an explanation," Rep. John Thompson, a St. Paul Democrat, wrote in a statement distributed by House DFL Caucus staff Monday night.
“During my stop, it was brought up that my vehicle did not have a front license plate, I did not have a Minnesota driver’s license, and there was a record of me having missed a child support payment. While all of these have relatively simple explanations, I take responsibility for my fault in not addressing these issues and allowing them to eclipse the hard-fought work done in the name of police reform."
Rep. Thompson has been under fire since July 6 when he told the media he had been racially profiled two days earlier by a St. Paul Police sergeant, who pulled him over for having a missing front license plate. Thompson made the comment at a rally outside the Governor's Residence marking the fifth anniversary of his friend Philando Castile's shooting death during a traffic stop.
"We’re still getting driving-while-Black tickets here in this state. As a matter of fact, in Saint Paul. Let's just call it what it is," Thompson, a frequent police critic, remarked.
"I’m a Minnesota state representative. I’m a lawmaker here. I shouldn’t have to be profiled."
When reporters called the St. Paul Police for a response, they learned that Thompson had presented a valid Wisconsin driver's license during the traffic stop at 7th Street East and Wacouta Ave. downtown. He had renewed the license last November, the same month he was elected to his first term in the Minnesota House.
Thompson said he has lived in Minnesota for many years but kept renewing his license in Wisconsin because he thought he'd be moving back there. Under state law, drivers who move here from other states are supposed to get a Minnesota license within 60 days.
It also became clear that the St. Paul home address he provided at the scene is not inside District 67A, the house district he was elected to represent. That would also be problematic, especially if he tries to run for reelection without moving back to that eastside district.
Police Chief Todd Axtell went to Facebook to defend the traffic stop and ask Thompson for an apology. "I’m dismayed and disappointed by the state representative’s response to the stop," the chief wrote. "Rather than taking responsibility for his own decisions and actions, he attempted to deflect, cast aspersions and deny any wrongdoing."
"At the Saint Paul Police Department, we work hard to be fair, to treat everyone with respect and to lead by example," Axtell continued. "We also take responsibility for our actions. When we make mistakes, we own them and try to fix them. It’s what our community expects of its public servants. The driver, an elected official who does not dispute driving without a front license plate, owes our sergeant an apology."
Thompson wasn't ticketed for the license plate infraction but did receive a citation for driving while suspended.
In the body cam footage, Thompson can be heard telling the officer that he's a state representative. The officer responded, "With a Wisconsin license?" Thompson confirmed, "With a Wisconsin license," before the officer returned to his vehicle.
When the officer returned to Thompson's vehicle, he informed Thompson that his license was suspended in Minnesota. The officer then told Thompson that he was initially pulled over for having no front license plate and "the way you took off from the light."
Thompson then accused the officer of racially profiling him.
"You pulled me over because you saw a Black face in this car," Thompson said.
As it turned out, even though Thompson didn't hold a Minnesota driver's license, his driving privileges in this state had been suspended after the court reported he was behind on child support. Thompson said Monday that he has since cleared up the child support issue, and his Minnesota driving privileges are restored.
The St. Paul Police Federation, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, and Minnesota Republican Party all called on Thompson to take the steps necessary to request and distribute body cam footage of the July 4 stop.
"Why hasn’t he made the request to have the body camera footage released?" Office Mark Frost, the president of the St. Paul Police Federation said Monday.
"Especially for someone who has been a champion at the Capitol. That’s been his signature issue, one of them at least, as far a police transparency."
Thompson has advocated for a bill that would require police to release unedited footage of critical incidents to the family members of those injured or killed by police in critical incidents.
The St. Paul Police Department said Monday they have the body camera footage ready to release to Rep. Thompson, but he must request it before they give it to him. And then it will be up to him to release it to the public. By MN Data Practices regulations only the "subject" of the video can authorize its release in a pre-trial situation.
Chief Todd Axtell also requested a legal opinion from City Attorney Lyndsey Olson, asking whether the police sergeant himself could be classified as the "subject" of the video. Under that scenario the sergeant could release the video, but the department would have to blur out Thompson's face.
When Thompson formally filed as a candidate in May of 2020, he filled out an affidavit attesting to the fact that he's eligible to vote in Minnesota and that he lives in the district. He checked a box requesting that his home address be kept private, but the Secretary of State's Office confirmed Thompson privately provided an address inside District 67A.
In 2016 the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Rep. Bob Barrett of Taylor's Falls must have his name taken off the ballot because opponents had documented he was spending most of his time at a residence outside his district.
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin also chided Thompson, saying he failed to live up to the high standards that elected officials must set.
"Nobody is above the law, including our elected officials," Martin wrote. "We expect all of our elected officials, regardless of party, to not only follow the law, but to hold themselves to the highest standards."
The Legislature won't be back at the State Capitol until September when they'll hold a special session to create a bonus program for essential workers who lost pay during the COVID pandemic.
Under Minnesota law state lawmakers can be subject to recall if supporters of the idea gather signatures equal to 25 percent of total votes in the most recent election. There were 14,495 votes cast in that race in 2020, so 25% of that would be 3,674.
On Monday Thompson appeared in Hennepin County District Court on an unrelated matter, a charge of obstructing the legal process in connected to a confrontation with officers inside North Memorial Hospital in November of 2019. Thompson has said Robbinsdale Police Dept. officers hurt his arm while arresting him, after telling him that the loudest people are the one who are normally sent to jail.
Thompson and others had gone to the hospital that day after a Faribault man apparently attempted suicide and was taken by ambulance to North Memorial. Officers from several other agencies came to assist Robbinsdale officers and hospital security respond to what they described as a "brawl" -- saying that visitors were trying to penetrate restricted areas.
On Tuesday, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association wrote a letter to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul asking him to open an investigation.
Rep. Thompson's full statement:
"Five years ago last week, we marked the killing of my friend Philando Castile, who was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. Since being pulled over myself on July 4, my greatest regret is how the recent events have allowed us to overlook this time that should have been spent reflecting on the life of my friend and the changes that are needed to create a Minnesota where he would not have lost his life.
"I was pulled over in what is referred to as a pretextual traffic stop. The same type of stop that led to the killing of Philando, as well as Daunte Wright this April. Pretextual stops have been shown to not only do little to stop serious crimes, but they also disproportionately target nonwhites. This was the racial profiling I spoke to, and I’ve been working to get rid of these types of stops long before this summer.
"There have been calls to release the bodycam footage from my stop, which I want to make clear I fully support. It is within the power of the St. Paul Police to release that footage, and I am not a barrier to that. In the video, you won’t see the officer do anything that isn’t by the book, but the issue is we need to rewrite the book. 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.
"As much as I hate how recent coverage of this issue has been about me, I recognize I have an obligation to my constituents, and owe them an explanation. I have an obligation for Black men who don't have the platform that I do. I'm pushing legislation for more police accountability, and this situation is a great example of why that work matters.
"During my stop, it was brought up that my vehicle did not have a front license plate, I did not have a Minnesota driver’s license, and there was a record of me having missed a child support payment. While all of these have relatively simple explanations, I take responsibility for my fault in not addressing these issues and allowing them to eclipse the hard-fought work done in the name of police reform.
"My family bought a new car, and as with any new vehicle, we had to wait for our plates and get the proper tools to attach them. Not long after purchasing this car, it was rear-ended, and we did not drive the vehicle for some time. When I did drive the car on July 4, it should have had a front license plate, but I didn’t have the right part for the front bracket. After I was stopped, they ran my license, which is a Wisconsin driver’s license. I previously lived in Wisconsin, and my family and I considered moving back there to care for a family member, who will now be coming to live here. I live and work in St. Paul, and have for many years. My Wisconsin license hadn’t previously posed an issue for me, but I will now be changing it to a Minnesota license, as I should have before. During my stop, I was also informed that my license had been suspended for a minor child support issue, one which was resolved long ago. I owe $0 in child support.
"After all of this, I was only given a ticket for driving with a suspended license. I do not know why I wasn’t cited for driving without the front license plate - the reason for my stop.
"I was able to drive away from this interaction while other Black Minnesotans, in very similar situations, have not. The desire to be treated with respect and be able to drive away from this interaction safely was why I informed the officer I was a State Representative during our conversation. Too many Minnesotans are dealing with barriers like this without a respectable title in front of their name. Philando was notably pulled over 49 times, largely for minor violations. I believe these pretextual stops are part of structures that operate to restrict access to jobs and housing, lock us up, and publicly humiliate Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. Interactions like this block us from our families, block us from our kids, and create new barriers to a quality of life.
"We need better, and that’s what I’m working towards. I understand that my emotions can sometimes make it hard for some people to hear the real message. These are difficult issues, and I’ve lost loved ones, but I ask you to work with me. We need a broad coalition, including law enforcement, to come together to understand that Minnesotans that look like me - my family, friends, and community - are living with these issues every day. I hope we can focus on conversations that center around making that change possible."