CHICAGO — A group of Black and Latino Chicagoans are suing the Chicago Police Department, alleging discriminatory and invasive traffic stop policies.
The federal lawsuit was filed Tuesday by the ACLU of Illinois on behalf of Eric Wilkins, Mahari Bell, Essence Jefferson, José Almanza and Jacquez Beasley.
Combined, police have pulled them over 50 times since 2017, the lawsuit states. Only one of the traffic stops the plaintiffs reported resulted in an arrest — and those charges were dropped and expunged, attorneys said.
The lawsuit comes as recent data showed Black Chicagoans were nine times more likely to be stopped by police than white Chicagoans in 2018 and 2019. This was despite the fact that officers were 29 percent more likely to find drugs or weapons if they searched someone who is white, according to the independent monitoring team overseeing the police department’s consent decree.
The lawsuit also cites investigative reporting from multiple news outlets, including Block Club Chicago, that documents racial and ethnic disparities in the drivers police most frequently stop and search.
The stops are discrimination and violate multiple state and national civil rights and protection clauses, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit asks a federal court to prohibit Chicago police from “targeting predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods for a high volume of traffic stops, bar the use of traffic stops as simply an excuse to search for contraband like weapons or drugs, and end traffic stop quotas, among other requests.”
“The experiences of these five drivers demonstrate how policies by the City and the CPD have sown fear and distrust among Black and Latino residents,” said Alexandra Block, senior supervising attorney at the ACLU of Illinois.
A Police Department spokesperson declined to comment.
Police Searched Drivers For Drugs And Weapons, But Found None, Attorneys Say
Some of the plaintiffs have been pulled over as many as 12 times in the last two years, according to the lawsuit.
All of the drivers shared instances of being pulled over for seemingly small infractions, such as a license plate not being adequately lit or failing to use a turn signal, according to the suit.
Upon being pulled over, the drivers often were asked if they had any drugs or weapons in the car. For three of the drivers, this turned into unwanted searches of their vehicles, even though they answered no and officers did not find anything illegal in their cars, the suit states.
Wilkins, 52, was one of them.
A survivor of gun violence, Wilkins uses leg braces for mobility. When pulled over in June 2022 on the South Side, Wilkins was forced out of his car even after he told police he did not have a FOID card or any weapons, according to the lawsuit.
Police searched his vehicle and forced Wilkins to take a field sobriety test after he had explained the braces on his legs affect the way that he walks, according to the suit. Wilkins was not issued a citation for the stop.
Bell, 25, had his car searched by police after being pulled over while making deliveries for UberEats, according to the lawsuit.
Officers demanded to know if there was cannabis in the car and claimed they could “smell it.,” the suit states. Even though Bell said no, officers had him get out of the car and handcuffed him while they searched inside, according to the suit.
“As onlookers passed by on the busy street — staring at Mr. Bell in handcuffs while
an officer searched through his vehicle — Mr. Bell felt shocked, frustrated, and completely humiliated,” the lawsuit said.
Officers did not find cannabis or give Bell a ticket for the stop, according to the lawsuit.
Cops have pulled Bell over at least 10 times in the last eight years, with many of those stops happening more frequently and recently, according to the suit.
For example, Bell was pulled over three times in four days in March, the suit states.
“As a careful and conscientious driver, it is obvious that I have been stopped based on police officers’ false stereotypes about young Black men rather than for any legitimate reason,” Bell said in a statement.
The drivers have felt violated, harassed, humiliated and stereotyped by Chicago police because of the repeated stops, the lawsuit said
Additionally, police did not properly document a majority of these traffic stops or did not properly activate their body-worn cameras as required by law, the lawsuit states.
This 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.
Each year since the study began, around seven times more Black Chicagoans are stopped by the police than white Chicagoans, the data shows. Latino drivers were stopped at three times the rate of white drivers.
Still, white drivers were more likely to be found with contraband when searched by police, even though they were far less likely to be pulled over, according to the study.
“[This] suggests that CPD officers employ a lower threshold of suspicion to search cars driven by Black and Latino individuals than white individuals,” the lawsuit said.
Officers also were shown to stop Black drivers “disproportionately in areas where white or Latino people make up the majority of residents”, according to an ACLU analysis of Chicago police data spanning between 2015 and 2022.
All five drivers in the lawsuit filed by the ACLU were predominately pulled over in Black or Latino neighborhoods, while also being stopped in some white neighborhoods – the lawsuit shows.
“As a community organizer working to improve relations between police and community members, it is clear that CPD’s practice of targeting Black drivers with traffic stops increases tension and anger between Black people and the police,” Wilkins said in a statement.. “It makes people of color feel like we’re not free to travel in our own neighborhoods.”
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