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Police study shows Springfield's Black motorists are stopped far more often than whites

Police car
Edward Kimmel/flickr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode
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Springfield Police stopped Black motorists last year at a rate five times higher than white drivers according to the Illinois Department of Transportation’s annual traffic stop study.

“These numbers are not good. These numbers are extremely high,’’ said Ken Page, a Black driver who is president of the Springfield chapter of the ACLU. “And high numbers like this leads to not very good relationships between the community and police.”

“I was hoping that eventually, when we get that data, it will show that those stops had…declined where Black and Brown people were not disproportionately stopped, and we could be beyond this,’’ Page said. “We have discussed this for a very long time. And I'm not exactly sure what discussing it does, because we just discuss it.”

A spokesman for the Springfield Police declined to comment because there had not been time to review last week’s ACLU analysis of the report, which was produced earlier this summer.

The overall rate for the state showed that those stops occurred at a rate 1.7 times greater than those involving white drivers, which the ACLU of Illinois calls problematic.

Joshua Levin is a staff attorney for the ACLU of Illinois. “The low-level violations that black people and Latinx people are so frequently pulled over for, like having expired tag or having a broken taillight, are issues that all drivers are violating, and so we should have equal treatment.”

Police in Illinois are required to record and report data about every motorist they stop, including the race of the motorist, the reason for the stop and the outcome of the stop. The law was sponsored by then-state Sen. Barack Obama.

Levin said the intent of the data collection is that it be a problem-solving and management tool for law enforcement agencies to solve the disparities in traffic stops.

“We think the next step is that law enforcement leadership and policymakers, in conjunction with community members, need to look very carefully at what practices their department is engaging in that are contributing to these disparities,” he said.

“For example, is a certain law enforcement department swarming predominantly Black communities with many more officers and telling those officers to conduct more traffic stops than in that city's predominantly white neighborhoods? Look at their practices. See if there are practices that are contributing to these disparities and then think of whether those practices can be reformed,’’ Levin said.

Mitchell Davis, who is the immediate past president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, is also chief in south suburban Hazel Crest. He said there needs to be a balance between addressing the community's crime challenges and avoiding over policing.

“While we may have targeted enforcement to address criminality in certain communities, we cannot…over-police the community to try to get at the criminals,” he said. “ We can’t police everybody in the community for the sake of getting at the few criminals that may exist there.”

According to the ACLU of Illinois analysis of the IDOT traffic stop study, in Chicago: Black drivers were more than 5 times more likely to be stopped than white drivers; Latinx drivers were nearly 2.5 times more likely to be stopped; in Aurora: Black drivers were 7 times more likely to be stopped by police; Latinx drivers were nearly 4 times more likely; in Bloomington: Black drivers were 4.7 times more likely to be stopped by police; Latinx drivers were twice as likely; in Peoria: Black drivers were 6.8 times more likely to be stopped by police; and Latinx drivers were 2.3 times more likely; and in Springfield: though Black drivers were 5 times more likely to be stopped by police, Latinx drivers were stopped consistent with their driving population in the community.

Also, Black drivers statewide were more than 40% more likely to be asked for permission for such a search.

Levin said his organization regards the disparate stop practices as ineffective policing.

“One of the really striking data points in the data is that, of all of these stops, only a minuscule percentage result in any contraband being found. And so, we should be asking whether these traffic stop practices are really a good use of officers' time,” he said. “In adding up the stops for equipment violations and licensing violations, there were 600,000 drivers in Illinois that were stopped for those kinds of low level, non- public safety issues.

“And thinking about the number of hours that the law enforcement officers spend pulling people over — 600,000 drivers in 2021— for these things like expired tags, maybe having a license plate not lit up enough. We want our police to use their time better."

He said he believes the harmful nature of the stops should be underscored.

“Nobody likes to be stopped by the police. But it's far worse for communities of color. And communities of color experience these extremely high rates of traffic stops as constant interruption and constant surveillance by police. It is humiliating to be searched."

“The data shows that white drivers' vehicles are more likely to have contraband found. And so, communities of color being subjected to these kinds of unfair practices of constant traffic stops really erode their trust in the police,’’ Levin said. “In the worst-case scenario, as we have seen, traffic stops of people of color can often lead to truly tragic outcomes with officer use of violence.”

On Friday August 12, the Springfield Police Department issued the following statement:

It is the practice and policy of the Springfield Police Department to treat all persons in a fair, impartial, equitable, and objective manner, in accordance with the law, and without consideration of their individual demographics.

The IDOT Traffic Stop Study does not take into account the specific areas where stops are made and racial and ethnic makeup of those areas. Historically, the City of Springfield has experienced higher rates of gun violence on the City’s east side and the Springfield Police Department has focused enforcement efforts in this area to counter the gun violence and keep residents safe. The raw data collected by IDOT also does not account for unlicensed drivers, drivers who are not Springfield residents, or for individuals who are known offenders and are stopped more frequently. The Springfield Police Department is committed to reducing violent crime, and specifically gun crime in the Capitol City. Vehicles are often used in conjunction with gun violence, drug trafficking and other criminal activity, and traffic stops have been shown to be an effective tool at arresting offenders and recovering illegal drugs and firearms.

The Springfield Police Department will continue to provide relevant training to our officers to emphasize the agency’s commitment to unbiased, equitable treatment of all persons while enforcing the law and providing professional law enforcement service to all residents of Springfield.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is lead editor of Illinois Issues' feature articles, working with freelance writers, and covering the equity beat. Maureen joined the Illinois Issues in 1998 as projects editor. Previously, she worked at three Illinois daily newspapers, most recently the suburban Chicago-based Daily Herald, where she served stints as an education reporter and copy editor. She graduated in 1985 with a bachelor's in journalism. She also has a master's degree in English from the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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