Figures collected by IDOT point to widespread issue, but likely aren't all that accurate
URBANA — While Urbana's new city task force on racial disparities in police traffic stops gets all the attention, it's actually other area towns where nonwhite drivers are getting pulled over at higher rates.
The Urbana task force is still in its infancy, and no one is sure yet what will come of it. But the people pushing for reform say traffic stop disparities are a nationwide problem, and they are hoping other cities will follow with their own analyses of the data.
The Illinois Department of Transportation began compiling statistics on police traffic stops in 2004. Of the six major police agencies in Champaign and Vermilion counties, five have never reported that they pull over nonwhite drivers in proportion to white drivers.
The accuracy of the IDOT statistics and the numbers themselves are often a source of debate. The ratios that unveil the disparities depend heavily on IDOT's estimation of the racial makeup of a town's driving population. The other figures are self-reported by nearly 1,000 police agencies statewide, and each has a different way of collecting them.
Even the experts hesitate to point to a reason why the disparities exist, but many people accept a simpler interpretation: The disparities exist.
"It's clearly a problem," said Stephen Portnoy, the president of the Champaign County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a professor emeritus of statistics at the University of Illinois.
ACLU members "feel that the discrepancy that is indicated clearly shows racial profiling," he said.
Not on the radar
In 2012, the most recent year for which there are statistics, Urbana reported that minority drivers were pulled over 7 percent more often than if they were pulled over at the same rate as white drivers.
That was a steep dropoff from the prior year, when the disparity was 58 percent.
Other area agencies reported higher figures in 2012: 30 percent for Champaign, 23 percent for the Champaign County Sheriff and 70 percent for University of Illinois police. The aggregated statistics from nearly 1,000 police agencies statewide show a 19 percent disparity.
Nonwhite drivers were 26 percent more likely to get pulled over by Danville police. The Vermilion County Sheriff was actually 24 percent more likely to pull over white drivers.
While Urbana is actually closest to the IDOT benchmark — the elusive 0 percent disparity — it is the only town taking a closer look at the numbers. In coming weeks, the Urbana City Council will appoint 11 members to a task force charged with conducting a deeper analysis of the numbers and try to develop some kind of understanding why they are the way they are.
"If there's a disparity, we need to look and see what it is regardless of how big or large it is," said Alderwoman Carol Ammons, D-Ward 3.
Ammons and Alderman Bill Brown, D-Ward 4, were deeply involved in writing the resolution that created the task force. Ammons said the goal is to look at all available local data — not just that included in the IDOT numbers — to get to an answer.
"The goal is to work with the police department, look at the data, look at the circumstances around them, and then come up with solutions," Ammons said.
Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said a task force like Urbana's is "not on my radar."
"I think, to my mind, I would like to see a little more data accrued," he said.
Gerard also pointed out that Police Chief Anthony Cobb took the job in 2012 at a time when racial tension between police and the community had been exacerbated by a number of recent events. That also happens to be the most recent year for IDOT statistics.
If a disparity exists, Gerard said he wants to allow Cobb time to run his department. He said good strides have already been made and expects that to continue.
"I trust his leadership," Gerard said.
The numbers game
Police struggle with the statistics. Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly said it is hard to count on the numbers when they rely so heavily on IDOT's benchmarks — largely an estimation of the racial makeup of an area's driving population, which can differ quite a bit from its actual population.
Since the "disparity index" is essentially a comparison between the driving population and how many nonwhite drivers were pulled over, it's very easy to get the numbers wrong.
Connolly said no one has a good handle on the city's driving population.
"What I would love to do is once and for all say here is the driving population for the city and here is the proportion, the driving ratio, among all the minorities," Connolly said.
Connolly suggested it would be easy to play with the numbers — go down to Windsor Road and pull over only white drivers, for example — but police are not about to do that.
Context is important, too, Connolly said. He said people should understand why there are more police in certain areas during certain times. When the police are alerted to a potential issue, they will look at the reason for the traffic stop, review video of the stop and consider the situation in context.
But the department cannot change its policing strategies just to make the numbers look better, he said.
"We're going to address that individual if we identify an issue, but we are not going to adjust the way we police just to get closer to what IDOT says the benchmark is," Connolly said.
'Way beyond traffic stops'
It is not the first time Urbana has explored the issue. In 2010, its human relations commission worked with a University of Chicago doctoral student to examine the city's data between 2007 and 2009, when the reported disparities were much higher than they are now.
The report went into detail on the relationship between traffic stops and location, time of day, day of the week, gender, the age of vehicles and the rate of ticketing. Minority drivers were stopped less often than whites for moving violations and more often for equipment or licensing violations.
The numbers were folded back and forth. Aside from the report being available on the city's website, nothing ever happened with it.
Ammons has her own report: 35,475 black drivers have been pulled over in Champaign-Urbana since 2004, and that's 18,827 more than if no racial disparity existed.
Based on how often drivers get a ticket when they're pulled over and the minimum penalty for a violation ($120), Ammons says black drivers have paid an extra $1.35 million in fines and fees since IDOT began compiling the statistics.
That's a conservative estimate, she said, but still an economic wallop to the local black community.
"This is a big chunk of money coming from one side of the community," Ammons said.
Portnoy said he does not think it's a conscious decision on the part of the police to pull over racial minorities at higher rates, but it is still profiling.
"I think part of it is that police are looking for certain kinds of suspicious activity," Portnoy said. "And when they see that activity in a black person, they think it's more suspicious somehow."
He also points out the data shows police statewide search nonwhites at higher rates than whites, and police find contraband more often when they search white people. The sample size locally is low, but it's a trend throughout Illinois.
"I think that by itself is a problem and needs to be addressed," Portnoy said.