No Simple Answers: How often do police engage in racial profiling?

Sep 1, 2006

Sen. Kwame Raoul wants you to slow down. Be patient. Another batch of data in Illinois' massive study of traffic stops has been released, and this is no time to be jumping to conclusions about how often police engage in racial profiling, the Chicago Democrat says. 

Problem is, he — and plenty of other officials, for that matter — isn't nearly so clear on how long people must wait or just who will dig into the numbers and figure out whether Illinois has a problem.

Maybe the Illinois Department of Transportation will do it. Maybe each individual police department will have to reach its own conclusion. Maybe a yet-to-be-appointed oversight panel will organize things.

The numbers themselves certainly don't offer simple answers. This is the second year of the study, which requires every police officer in the state to turn in data — time, reason, race of the driver, whether a ticket was written and more — about every single traffic stop. 

The latest report showed a small but clear imbalance in traffic stops during 2005. Whites made up 71.5 percent of the Illinois driving population but accounted for only 68.2 percent of traffic stops.

Meanwhile, 28.5 percent of drivers were minorities, but they made up 31.8 percent of stops. The numbers also show 59.5 percent of white drivers got a ticket after being pulled over, while 68.5 percent of minority drivers were ticketed. Only 0.74 percent of white drivers had their cars searched, but 2.1 percent of minorities gave consent for searches.

That was the situation statewide. In some cities, the imbalance was more pronounced, as shown by a ratio of minorities pulled over to minorities in the community. If, for instance, minorities made up 25 percent of a community's population and accounted for 25 percent of traffic stops, the ratio would be 1. 

But if 50 percent of stops involved minorities, the ratio would be 2 — and local police would face lots of questions.

The statewide ratio was 1.12. In Charleston, it was 1.98, and in Quincy 1.93. Decatur, Effingham and Springfield were all above 2. Collinsville and Moline were below 1, meaning fewer minorities were pulled over than you would expect based solely on population.

But are those imbalances a result of police bias? Are police in Decatur and Springfield targeting minorities while police in Collinsville and Moline give them a pass? That's where Raoul and others want to avoid jumping to conclusions. "I just can't emphasize enough the importance for people to be patient," says Raoul, who makes clear that, for him, the question isn't whether profiling takes place but how often.

Alexander Weiss, director of Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety, compiles the traffic-stop data for the transportation department. He points out that a city might have a suspicious number of minority traffic stops not because of racism but because of heavy patrols in high-crime areas with large minority populations. 

Perhaps poverty is a factor, and minorities are more likely to drive vehicles with equipment problems that attract police attention. Or maybe a department in general will have a good record, but one or two biased officers will skew its numbers.

Many departments already are analyzing the numbers and looking for problem areas or problem officers, Weiss says. 

He says the Illinois State Police has taken a hard look at its numbers, and the agency has hired the University of Texas at Dallas to crunch the numbers.

State Police spokesman Rick Hector told Illinois Issues no one at the agency was prepared to answer questions about the study.

Laimutis Nargelenas, deputy director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, questions the validity of the study and argues the money would be better spent installing video cameras in every squad car. But if the numbers have any use, he says, it's in helping departments drill down and look at particular parts of town or even particular officers. "If there's something going on, that's where it's going to be," he says.

The study was supposed to run through the end of 2007, but a new law co-sponsored by Raoul extends it to July 2010 and sets up a board to oversee the study. The board, which will have 15 members, also is supposed to develop policies to prevent racial profiling and recommend whether to continue the study.

But who is responsible for determining just what all these numbers mean?

The oversight board, if it is to prevent profiling, surely will have to draw some conclusions about the extent and cause of the problem. But Raoul says it's probably up to the transportation department and its consultant, Weiss, to interpret the numbers. Weiss, however, says he doesn't know if that's his role; he says conclusions really must be drawn at the local level by individual police departments.

And what about the state as a whole and its response to the study? "My sense," Weiss says, "is that as time goes by there will be a clearer feeling of what the issues are." 

Christopher Wills is the Statehouse correspondent for The Associated Press. 

Illinois Issues, September 2006