As police traffic stops continue to spike in Chicago, the American Civil Liberties Union is asking why minorities are still pulled over much more often than whites despite court-ordered reforms as City Hall searches for its fourth police superintendent in 11 years.
“Drivers of color continue to be stopped at higher percentages than their estimated local driving population,” the ACLU noted after statistics from 2018 were released. “And they are asked to consent to searches more frequently, with less contraband found, than white drivers.”
There were roughly 490,000 traffic stops on Chicago streets last year, more than 200,000 than the previous year, according to data from the Illinois Department of Transportation. It was the third consecutive year of sharp increases.
About 86% (421,000) involved minority motorists. Of those, 300,000 were black. That’s 61% of the total number of people stopped in Chicago in 2018, even though African Americans are about 31% of the city’s 2.7 million population. Nearly 68,000 of the stops involved white motorists.
In 2017, about 172,116 of the 285,000 motorists who were stopped were black, or about 60%. In 2016, 187,000 drivers were stopped and 113,287 were black, or again about 60%.
Last year, the ACLU noted, Chicago police performed only 54 vehicle searches for white motorists compared to 1,567 for minorities, yet found a higher percentage of contraband for whites.
Chicago police say the increase in traffic stops coincide with a general increase in police activity aimed primarily at seizing illegal guns. The department noted there was a 28% increase in weapons seized during traffic stops between 2017 and 2018 — and double digit percentage decreases in homicides and shootings.
“Chicago police have recovered more than 10,000 guns already in 2019,” said chief police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. “Many of these guns were found as a result of traffic stops.”
He also noted that “a higher number of police officers are deployed to high-crime areas in Chicago. Given the level of violent crime on the South and West sides, there are higher number of enforcement missions.”
An ACLU study four years ago found that Chicago police made street stops at a far higher rate than New York City cops did at the height of their controversial stop-and-frisk practices. Instead of suing the police, the ACLU worked with the department to more thoroughly document street stops and implement programs aimed at curtailing racial profiling.
But officials with the nation’s oldest civil libertarian organization say they fear the latest statistics suggest Chicago police have simply shifted from stopping people on the street to stopping drivers and still target minorities.
“The reality remains simple. Nearly everyone driving on the roads and streets has violated some minor traffic law, but drivers of color continue to be stopped at higher percentages than their estimated local driving population, and they are asked to consent to searches more frequently, with less contraband found, than white drivers,” said Rachel Murphy, staff attorney with the ACLU of Illinois.
“We can only infer that traffic stops simply became a substitute when problems with stop and frisk were made public,” she added.
Civil libertarians and activists have long criticized so-called broken windows policing where police focus on minor infractions in crime-plagued neighborhoods, claiming it harasses minority residents without lowering crime.
Chicago police are already implementing a broad overhaul of the department’s policies and practices following a U.S. Justice Department investigation that described Chicago’s police force as badly trained, largely unaccountable and prone to civil rights violations, especially against minorities.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is also searching for a successor to police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, whom she fired last month following a scandal.
Guglielmi said the department has honored its partnership with the ACLU and provides officers with bias training and regular briefings on best practices for traffic stops.
“Police officers are trained to stop vehicles after a traffic violation or potential crime has occurred,” he said. “An overwhelming majority of traffic stops in Chicago are recorded on video.”
The statewide collecting of traffic stop data under the Illinois Traffic Stop Statistical Study Act — sponsored by then-state Sen. Barack Obama and signed into law in 2003 — was set to end after this year but Gov. J.B. Pritzker made the law permanent in June.
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