Traffic Stops II: Data show racial disparity, but police say that's never been their intent

Traffic Stops II: Data show racial disparity, but police say that's never been their intent

Black drivers who live in Champaign or Urbana are more likely to be stopped for traffic violations than white drivers.

Police in both cities say that's not because of race.

Ten years into a state law that requires police to report every traffic stop, racial disparities remain, locally and statewide. But police say the reasons have nothing to do with race. They say it is difficult — sometimes, virtually impossible — to know the race of a driver before a stop. They say they sometimes use traffic stops for purposes other than traffic. And they say their procedures would almost immediately identify an officer who was engaged in profiling — stopping drivers based on their race.

"I've never worked with a racist police officer, and I've worked in both Champaign and Urbana," said Champaign Officer Kurt Buckley. "I have never experienced that in my 10 years of law enforcement in the community.

"I'm 32 years old. I've dealt with racist people in my personal life and I think most people have," he said. "If you see racism, you know what it is. I don't see that at work. I'm just using my own experiences of I know what racism is: If someone's talking to me and they use a racist remark, or the tone of their conversation. I've never experienced that" as a police officer.

In Urbana, a task force is studying data collected under the state law.

Pete Resnick, chairman of the task force and a longtime member of the city's human-relations commission, said he doesn't know yet what it will find.

"In the end, the intent of the officer might not be the most important thing," Resnick said. "The effect of a disparity might be the most important thing."

"You're talking about a low-income community," he added. "If it turns out to be the case that those communities are being ticketed more often than other communities, even if it's simply because the police are spending more time and therefore happen to be pulling over more people, the economic impact to those communities can be terrible. So we've been looking at not only what is happening in terms of the number of stops but what that does to the community. Does it have economic impact? Does it have social impact?"

Police agencies must report details of every traffic stop to the state transportation department, which compiles the data and releases it annually in the summer. Statewide, the number of stops in 2013 was almost a half-million lower than the first year under the law, 2004. Champaign's total stops have dropped; Urbana's have increased in some years and dropped in others.

"Law enforcement and traffic enforcement has changed dramatically in that period of time," said Urbana Sgt. Andy Charles, a 25-year veteran of the department. "Traffic enforcement has definitely declined in that 10-year period. The amount of enforcement has declined. And some of it has to do with the law being passed. I think officers (are) feeling like they're being scrutinized and a way to avoid that scrutiny is to simply not do it."

According to the state traffic-stop information, in Champaign, over the last three years, black residents of driving age — based on the city's population age 16 and over according to the 2010 Census — were stopped 2.5 to 3.9 times as often as their white counterparts. In Urbana, black residents of driving age were stopped 2.6 to 2.9 times as often.

In each city, black residents were more likely to be stopped for equipment violations than white residents. But black residents were also more likely to be stopped at night — between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. — when some equipment violations, like lights not working, are more visible. And they were driving, on average, vehicles that were two to two-and-a-half years older than whites were driving.

"How often do people take the time to inspect their cars on a regular basis, to walk around and make sure all the lights work, and have someone step on the brake pedal to make sure the brake lights are coming on?" Champaign police Chief Anthony Cobb said. "Most people don't do that. And the longer the car is in service, those things are going to happen. As law enforcement, we have to make people aware that's a safety issue, but if we make them aware of it and they get it fixed, that's what we want to begin with."

Police have long used traffic stops to prevent other crimes.

"Equipment violations are sometimes used as a springboard into other types of enforcement," Charles said. "That can be used in an area where there's a specific identified problem and one of the identified solutions to that problem may be to be in contact with more people in that area, to identify the people who are in that area, to have a face-to-face contact with those people. Traffic enforcement can be used as a springboard into that."

That was the case in Champaign in 2013, Cobb said. Both that summer and this summer, the city was hit by gun violence. The police department assigned officers to different locations than normal — and used traffic stops — to counter that threat, Cobb said.

"When we look at when the shots fired are occurring, where things are happening, we were able to identify a lot of individuals who may have been engaged in an action," he said. "We're talking about a group of 35 to 40 individuals. Unfortunately, in all the gun violence that we deal with, the majority of them, the suspects are African-American males.

"The best tool to address some of those issues were traffic stops, to initiate contact and make it difficult for an individual to drive around with a gun in their possession."

And the places where black residents were most often stopped were areas with a higher proportion of black residents — and, as with gun violence, in some cases, areas of higher crime, police say.

"When it comes to discipline, unruliness, the correlation that you see with what the schools are seeing in the classrooms it's very similar to what we're seeing and dealing with in the community," Cobb said. "I think you look at the national statistics, they'll show (that) as well.

"I hate saying it, as an African-American male, we're over-represented in the criminal-justice system. Why? There's a lot of factors that play into that."

"No matter how well we design this, we might see implicit bias disparities," Resnick said, "that people aren't conscious of what they're doing but they're still pulling over more black people. You'd think the numbers would be bigger if it was a conscious thing. You'd see it more consistently. But I don't know that just from the data of the stops — without interviewing officers, without all sorts of other information, just from the data of the stops — we're going to be able to figure out if it's a conscious thing.

"And whether it's conscious or not, I'm not sure that's the biggest problem," he said. "If it's happening, if it's out there — and the data looks like it's happening — that's a problem, whether it's conscious or not. And even, to a certain extent, whether it's accidental or not. We've heard police departments say, 'Well, it's because we're patrolling those areas more often.' OK, so maybe it's not even an unconscious thing, maybe it's simply you're there more often in neighborhoods that happen to be populated more by African-Americans. Still, that might have impacts that we want to in some way address."

Still, it's often the case that an officer doesn't know the race of a driver before a traffic stop.

"I would say I think I know maybe 50 percent of the time, but I'm probably only correct 40 percent of the time," Charles said. "So I guess because I'm not always correct, the answer would truly be I'm never really sure."

"It just depends on where you're at, where the car is, what the violation is," said Champaign Deputy Chief Joseph Gallo. "Is it possible? Yes. More often than not, if you're looking at the violation, how do you focus on the driver? You can only look at so many different things at one time while you're operating a squad car, turning around, making calls. ... More often than not, you don't know the race until" the stop.

Traffic enforcement isn't a random exercise, Charles said.

"When we do traffic enforcement, we're doing it with purpose," he said. "If we're doing it for traffic purposes, we're talking about making traffic flow more freely, safer, if that's what we're doing, then we're trying to identify the locations where there are traffic problems, or we're having crashes or we're having difficulty between pedestrians and traffic, bicycles and traffic — problem areas. Try and find what the specific problem is and then work off that to see how we can address that problem, try to make it less of an issue, make it safer, make it move better."

If an officer was making stops based on race, it wouldn't go undetected for long, police in both cities say.

"Every traffic stop is audio- and videorecorded," Cobb said, and supervisors check those recordings. "If the equipment is not working, that car is out of service. So the officer knows every stop will be scrutinized."

And the chiefs in each city say they have never disciplined an officer for racial profiling.

"That would be an incredibly serious violation of our policy," said Urbana police Chief Patrick Connolly.

In both cities, supervisors check each traffic ticket that's written — usually the same day.

"You look for patterns in the stops, and do they pass the sniff test?" Charles said. "Are we stopping people all over town and coming up with an inordinate amount of whoever?

"If I'm at Five Points, I should see a pretty good cross-section of our society coming in on the stops," he said. "If I don't, and if I see a pattern of it, as a supervisor, I have to question that. There may be a reason. 'Yeah, everybody that was stopped today was a white male between the ages of 25 and 30, but there was a big gathering somewhere in the immediate area that people were coming and going from.' There can be explanations, but we have to make sure we ask the questions when we see patterns start to form."

In Champaign, "Lieutenants review each ticket that's written," said Gallo, who produces an annual report on the city's stops. "They're looking for the correction, making sure the ticket's right; they're looking at the IDOT sticker that's on the back, making sure that information is accurate and correct. And they're also looking at the officers, who's writing what tickets for what kind of violations and is that where our hot spots and problem areas are. They're evaluating a number of different things. That's done each day (except weekends) by the district lieutenants."

Police in both cities say the law has raised awareness of profiling.

"I'm glad Urbana has decided to actually do this," Resnick said. "It takes a lot for a city to say, 'Yes, we should look to see what the cause of this apparent problem is.' I'm glad the city council and the mayor did it."

"This department was very aware of it before the law ever went into effect," Charles said. "As a matter of fact, (former) Chief (Eddie) Adair had specifically addressed it — not that it was an issue, but addressed it as 'This will not be an issue here.'"

"It requires us to look at it, look for patterns," Cobb said. "There's a lot of problems within this law and a lot of issues, as far as is it truly telling an accurate story. But the thing is it has definitely started a dialogue and required us to look at things and look for best practices and better ways to make sure our officers are truly dealing with behavior, not dealing with color."

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theEd-itor wrote on October 06, 2014 at 8:10 am

I am proof that Urbana police are trying to fix this problem. I was on Washington street a couple months ago at a four way stop by prairie school and apperantly I did not stop at the stop sign. I did think that I stopped so I challenged the ticket in court. The states atty office showed me the video from the officers dash cam and sure enough i did not come to a complete stop,  I had to wait to see my vehicle on the tape because it was after the van load full of African Americans that blew through the stop sign before me without even an attempt to stop.  The officer did not stop the AA's at all but about 15 seconds later I was shown on the video and I was stopped and recieved a ticket. The only reason it could have been is because I am white. It looks good on paper I guess, and after the video was viewed the states atty. office   did not proceed with the charge of disobeying  a stop sign.

rsp wrote on October 06, 2014 at 9:10 am

It's not just the stop because you have to sometimes target areas. It'a also what happens after the stop.

nndsmom wrote on October 06, 2014 at 10:10 am

I don't doubt that there is no conscious intent on the part of officers.  I do believe there is a deeply ingrained tendency to view different people differently.  I acknowledge that I have benefitted from white privilege without even trying, or for a long time even knowing.  Except, on a deep level, I always knew.  I always knew that as a white female I am viewed more as a potential victim than a potential perpetrator.

When I was stopped and ticketed for speeding last year did that prove that there is no racial profiling?  No, it simply proved that even white females get stopped sometimes.  In my case, it took 37 years of driving before I was stopped, although I'm quite sure I might have surpassed the speed limit on more than one occasion throughout those years.

Ask your middle aged black friends at what age they got stopped for the first time.  I'll bet it was before the age of 53.  And I'll bet the officer didn't act nearly as apologetic as the one did with me.

nndsmom wrote on October 06, 2014 at 10:10 am

I don't doubt that there is no conscious intent on the part of officers.  I do believe there is a deeply ingrained tendency to view different people differently.  I acknowledge that I have benefitted from white privilege without even trying, or for a long time even knowing.  Except, on a deep level, I always knew.  I always knew that as a white female I am viewed more as a potential victim than a potential perpetrator.

When I was stopped and ticketed for speeding last year did that prove that there is no racial profiling?  No, it simply proved that even white females get stopped sometimes.  In my case, it took 37 years of driving before I was stopped, although I'm quite sure I might have surpassed the speed limit on more than one occasion throughout those years.

Ask your middle aged black friends at what age they got stopped for the first time.  I'll bet it was before the age of 53.  And I'll bet the officer didn't act nearly as apologetic as the one did with me.

Commonsenseman wrote on October 06, 2014 at 5:10 pm

wow, you have really drank the kool aid  "white privilege", using all the right pc terms, do you live in Urbana?

Local Yocal wrote on October 06, 2014 at 10:10 am
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"Does it have social impact?"

The entire criminal justice system is having a huge social impact. In 2000, only 10% of the population in Champaign County was living at or below the poverty line. Today in 2014, nearly 24.5% are, with the City of Champaign at 26% and the city of Urbana at 36%. Half the kids enrolled in our school districts are on reduced or free lunch.

The correlation to all this growing poverty is the opening of the Sattelite Jail in 1996 and doubling the number of prosecutions in this county. Harris & Harris, the collection agency hired by the State's Attorney to collect on court costs, fees, fines, and restitutions owed from those found guilty estimates the criminal justice debt owed by our citizenry at over $20 million dollars.

Not to mention how much damage the reputations of law enforcement sustain. No longer are the police and prosecutors seen as protectors of safety, but rather they are what Sheriff Walsh accurately called at the January 31, 2012 County Board meeting, "a business," occupying vampires there to extract money and bodies for job security. 

Commonsenseman wrote on October 06, 2014 at 5:10 pm

this is a really dumb study, more blacks live in high crime areas, more police are in high crime areas so more blacks get pulled over in those areas-duh, look at the unintended consequnces,  whites now get pulled over for violations to "equalize" the numbers just like in  Champaign  schools where African Americans get sent back to class by the principal with no punishment and whites receive punishment for minor offenses to  make the numbers better

nndsmom wrote on October 09, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Why yes, I do live in Urbana, quite proudly so.

I don't know what you think in my response is reflective of drinking the Kool-Aid.  I speak from personal experience.  I speak from the experience of being the white mother to a biracial son.  I live with the consequences of the racial tensions in this area every single day.

 

I actually meant this to be a reply to commonsenseman on his critique of my first post, but I hit the wrong button.  Thanks N-G for making it impossible for me to fix that after the fact.

Commonsenseman wrote on October 10, 2014 at 6:10 pm

if you want racial tensions to decreae perhaps those of you who are perpetuating this should  work on it, words and ideas like "white privilege" arent helpful, you might want to consider you are part of the problem and not part of the solution, looking for racial disparity seems to be a full time job for some people in this communtiy

trysomethingnew wrote on October 10, 2014 at 10:10 pm

When you have the complexion for the protection you don't understand what it's like to be treated differently because of your skin. Is my skin color keeping racism going? Do you suggest I stop showing up black so that I don't have to worry about being discriminated against? I think it's people like you who consider people standing up for their rights to be treated equally as everyone else who cause us to have police forces full of racists.  Champaign County is a very racist community. Name the minorities who hold county offices? I bet you can't. Name an elected black official in Champaign County? Don't give me the county board or the city councils I mean people who make a real legitimate difference in the community. What I know for a fact is too many people like you exist blaming us for calling you out on your racism. I appreciate open racists more than closeted ones. At least their honest about their views. 

Commonsenseman wrote on October 12, 2014 at 8:10 am

Not that it matters but you have no idea what race I am, I see too many people in ths community acting as if their rights have been violated when they are really demanding special treatment so their shortcomings will be ignored.  Racism seems to be the rallying cry of the lazy and entitled.  This community is by no  means racist  quite the opposite, there is too much reverse racsim here.  If you feel this community is "racist" then i suggest you do have the option to relocate.