Jim Dey: Will new traffic stop study yield better results?
For the second time in four years, the city of Urbana is embarking on a study of police traffic stops to determine if numerical disparities involving those who are pulled over reflect underlying racial bias.
But it's unclear if the impending study to be conducted by an 11-member task force will be any more revealing or helpful than the first. Considering the political bickering that surrounds the issue, it would be no surprise if the results of the second study are no more useful than those of the first.
But, for now at least, both Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing and one of her biggest critics, retired educator Durl Kruse, say they are hoping for the best.
"I think you get around the issue by having an open discussion," said Prussing.
For his part, Kruse said, "Maybe they will pull it off and do a really great job. And maybe they won't."
For all the complicated references to statistics, the fundamentals of the issue are rooted in this country's troubled racial history and easy to understand.
Those who raise concerns about the numbers suggest that racial profiling — aka being stopped for "driving while black" — is at the root of the problem. If it's not, they suggest, why are members of minority groups, particularly black citizens, pulled over in numbers that are disproportionate to their percentage of the population?
"I think there is a racial issue at play," said Kruse.
But Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly contends that numbers alone "tell us nothing" and that he could "make the numbers one to one tomorrow" simply by ordering his officers to ignore traffic violations by minority drivers.
"If we really want to study the issue, we need to study the context of the stop," he said.
Illinois has been collecting statistics related to police traffic stops since 2004, and the state's Department of Transportation produces annual reports containing statewide numbers.
The 2012 numbers revealed that authorities made 2,132,006 traffic stop statewide, 66 percent of them involving white motorists and 34 percent involving minorities including blacks, Asians and Hispanics.
IDOT reports that 19 percent of the motorists pulled over were black, a percentage that exceeds blacks' 15 percent share of the state's population.
The IDOT report breaks the numbers down further, including reasons, length and outcome of the stops as well as the number of consent searches and dog sniffs for illegal drugs.
The 2012 numbers for Urbana reveal that minority drivers were pulled over 7 percent more often than white drivers. The disparity was greater for other East Central Illinois communities, including Champaign and Danville.
Mayor Prussing is among those who are skeptical of the accuracy of the IDOT numbers, particularly as it relates to Urbana's numbers.
She contends that the 43,000-plus University of Illinois student population "introduces a significant distortion" into the numerical equation because UI students are "far less likely" to be either drivers or black.
"If we adjust the population figures to subtract out (UI) students, the African-American share of the non-student population in Urbana rises from 16.3 percent to 28.8 percent. The figure in Champaign goes from 15.5 percent up to 19.5 percent," she wrote in a December 2013 memo to city council members.
A bigger question is whether it's reasonable to expect that traffic stop numbers would fall neatly into population categories.
The city's 2010 study, which examined traffic stops from 2007 to 2009, revealed a disparity among races — 53 percent of stops involved whites, 33 percent blacks, with other races being less than 10 percent.
But it also showed that 48 percent of all stops occurred between 8 p.m. and 3:59 a.m., one-third of a 24-hour day, that "younger drivers are stopped more than older drivers," that male drivers were "stopped 58 percent of the time" and that vehicles made between 1997 and 2001 were involved in one-third of the stops.
One could speculate forever on what those numbers mean, assuming they mean anything.
The mayor's 11-person task force, which includes Alderman Eric Jakobsson, NAACP head Patricia Avery and retired Police Chief Mike Bily, faces an April 2015 deadline to complete its work. The group has been directed to "identify and study" existing racial disparities as well as driver's ages, residence, stop time, location, reason for stop. The task force also is directed to look at other statistics, including high school graduation rates, unemployment and incarceration.
People, however, can look at the same numbers and reach different conclusions. It's no secret that black citizens, for obvious historical reasons, are much more suspicious of the criminal justice than whites. That's why the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace & Justice, which lobbied for the task force, urges that the city answer the following questions:
— Is racial profiling occurring on any scale, large or small?
— Does "unintentional racial bias" play a role in traffic stops?
— Are traffic stops being used to "intimidate" or "harass"?
Those questions reflect a lack of trust in authorities, generally, and the Urbana police, specifically, and that gap may be unbridgeable.
Mayor Prussing said she is proud of the police department and believes its officers do a difficult job very well.
"I think Urbana police always are careful to treat everybody fairly," she said.
Kruse doesn't see it that way. He thinks the problem is obvious and easy to solve.
"My solution. ... would be to tell (Chief Connolly) to make the disparity drop 5 percent a year for the next five years," he said.
For more information
To read more about recent studies on traffic stops in Illinois and in Urbana:
Illinois Traffic Stop Study, 2012: http://www.dot.il.gov/trafficstop/results12.html
Urbana Traffic Stop Data Analysis, 2007-2009: http://urbanaillinois.us/sites/default/files/attachments/idot-traffic-stop-study-2007-09-urbana.pdf
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.