CHICAGO — Chicago police are stopping Black drivers overwhelmingly more often than white drivers, according to a state report.
Illinois Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Study data shows police are pulling over Chicago drivers more in recent years than ever before. It also shows massive racial disparities in how the roadways are policed: Chicago police stopped more than 204,000 Black drivers in 2020, compared to just over 35,000 white drivers.
“Traffic stops in Chicago have been going up exponentially,” said Rachel Murphy, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “It is so important for the city to explain what is driving these stops and explain why they believe this is a legitimate policing practice when it is disproportionately impacting Black drivers, especially; also, Latino drivers.”
The annual study was created by a 2003 state law in an attempt to identify racial bias in law enforcement agencies so local governments could take action to combat racial profiling.
But since the study began releasing findings in 2004, vast racial disparities in traffic stops have not decreased. Some metrics, like the sheer volume of unnecessary stops, have gotten much worse, Murphy said.
“The Chicago Police Department remains committed to ensuring residents are treated equally, fairly and with respect,” spokesman Don Terry said in an emailed statement. “Officers are trained to stop vehicles after a traffic violation or potential crime has occurred. We do not target individuals based on race or community.”
‘Racial Disparities Are Still There’
The surge in traffic stops began around 2015. That year, there were about 85,000 traffic stops by Chicago police, records show. But in 2019, the volume of traffic stops in the city swelled to nearly 600,000.
The most recent report, for 2020, shows the number of traffic stops fell to 327,224, likely since fewer drivers were on the roads due to the pandemic.
“But the racial disparities are still there,” Murphy said.
Each year since the study began, around seven times more Black Chicagoans are stopped by the police than white Chicagoans, the data shows. That rate has been consistent as the total number of stops has exploded since 2015, and the racial disparity remained even when the total number of stops fell in 2020.
Latino drivers were stopped at three times the rate of white drivers, the data shows.
Of the more than 300,000 stops made by Chicago police in 2020, about 62 percent of the drivers stopped were Black — and about 10 percent were white.
Black people make up about 30 percent of Chicago’s population, according to census data, while white people make up about half of the city’s population.
“People are not going out as much. But we’re still seeing that when officers are making stops, it’s still predominantly Black and Brown people,” Murphy said.
The report also suggests the overwhelming majority of traffic stops have little to nothing to do with public safety, Murphy said. In more than 90 percent of traffic stops last year, Chicago police did not issue any citations, the data shows.
“It seems to be without justification. While it may seem like a good thing that you’re not getting a ticket … your day has been interrupted. You’ve potentially had your car searched. It’s still frightening because you’re dealing with an armed officer. There’s a power imbalance,” Murphy said.
The tremendous volume of unnecessary stops may be a way for Chicago police to investigate other crimes, search people’s cars or attempt to find guns, Murphy said. But police actually reported finding guns in less than 1 percent of stops, Murphy said, and “the contraband rates of what is being recovered during the stops do not justify such disparate numbers.”
Even though white drivers are far less likely to be pulled over, they are also more likely to be caught with contraband in the car when their vehicles are searched by Chicago police, the data show. Officers found contraband in 32 percent of traffic stops when white drivers had their car searched, compared to just 23 percent for Black drivers.
“So many more Black drivers are experiencing these really frightening interactions every single day,” Murphy said. “It definitely raises Fourth Amendment concerns. If they are stopping people without legal justification, then that is a violation of your constitutional rights.”
It’s especially harmful that Black and Latino Chicagoans are so heavily impacted by the surge in traffic stops since any interaction with police can spiral into a situation of police violence, said Daniel Massoglia, an attorney and civil rights clinic director for First Defense Legal Aid.
“Each one of these stops is exceptionally dangerous for a person who gets pulled over. All of these contacts with police are just an opportunity for tragedy, and that I think is a concern that people I represent have,” Massoglia said.
The report’s findings point to deep and systemic issues with racial bias, profiling and a lack of accountability within the Police Department, Massoglia said.
The racial disparities in traffic stops are so pervasive in part because there is no recourse for people who feel they’ve been racially profiled by police, no punishment for officers who stop people unnecessarily and no goodwill attempts by police leadership to explain why such disparities exist or try to fix them, Massoglia said.
“We need to rethink our priorities as a society in terms of what does safety mean. I don’t think that pulling over [seven] times the number of Black people than White people for supposedly having issues with registration — I don’t think that makes us safer,” Massoglia said.
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