Guest Commentary | Pedestrian-stop study results troubling

Guest Commentary | Pedestrian-stop study results troubling


Has the time come for the Urbana and Champaign police departments to explain why so many African-American pedestrian stops occur in our community? When compared to other municipal law enforcement agencies statewide, the 2016 Illinois Pedestrian Stop Study strongly suggests so.

Pedestrian stops are a well-established law enforcement tool. Pedestrians fitting descriptions of alleged criminals or individuals displaying suspicious behavior are commonly accepted reasons for stopping pedestrians. But pedestrians can also be stopped for arbitrary reasons unrelated to any criminal behavior. Because of the lack of public data, it has been difficult to understand the nature and impact of pedestrian stops within a community.

Recognizing this deficiency, the Illinois General Assembly passed Public Act 99-352 in 2015, which mandates local law enforcement agencies collect and report data on pedestrian stops that involve "frisks, searches, summons and arrests." For standardization and comparative purposes, IPSS uses 2010 U.S. Census data to establish community demographics. The data is disaggregated by race, types of stop and outcomes of stop by percent and number.

Of particular interest are the statistics related to local African-Americans.

African-Americans compose 14.83 percent of Urbana's and 13.5 percent of Champaign's population; yet they total 58 percent of Urbana's and 42 percent of Champaign's pedestrian stops. This percentage discrepancy between population and stops might reasonably be explained by crime rates and locations of crimes. On the other hand, less justifiable reasons such as targeting, over-policing certain neighborhoods or profiling individuals based on skin color could also be partial explanations.

When comparing the actual number of local African-American pedestrian stops with other Illinois communities, a dramatic and disturbing picture emerges.

Excluding Chicago because of its population size, Urbana with 377 stops ranks second and Champaign with 322 stops ranks third only behind Cicero (529 stops) with the highest number of African-American stops in the state. That's correct, second and third. In 2016, only five other cities in the state reported more than 150 African-American pedestrian stops: DeKalb, Evanston, Joliet, Calument City and Oak Park.

More surprising is the fact that Peoria (129 stops), Springfield (116 stops), Decatur (51 stops), and Rockford (46 stops) had a combined total of 302 African-American pedestrian stops, 75 fewer than Urbana and 20 fewer than Champaign.

This difference is magnified when accounting for the African-American population of each community. Peoria, Springfield, Decatur and Rockford have a combined African-American population of 72,091, nearly 13.5 times greater than Urbana (5,344) and 7.8 times greater than Champaign (9,199). Together, these four cities have fewer African-American pedestrian stops than either Champaign or Urbana, even though their collective African-American population is eight to 13 times larger.

Also notable is the rate difference of stops between local Caucasian and African-American pedestrians. Caucasians are stopped at a rate of 8 and 9 per thousand in Champaign and Urbana, while African-Americans are stopped at a rate of 35 and 70 per thousand. A discrepancy of this magnitude is troubling.

Race clearly plays a role in both the number and frequency of local pedestrian stops. How are these racial differences to be explained?

Are Urbana and Champaign's social, economic and neighborhood problems so uniquely different compared to other communities that these numbers are reasonable?

Or are local police employing pedestrian stops in a tactically different way or under a different set of standards for people of color, resulting in disparities far outside the norm of almost every other municipality in Illinois?

What does the data suggest about the impartiality, fairness and equity of local law enforcement when viewed in terms of race and pedestrian stops?

The Urbana and Champaign Police Departments owe the public an explanation.

Durl Kruse is a member of Champaign Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice.