I recently submitted an editorial to a local online media outlet questioning Urbana’s response to its traffic stop racial disparities. Mayor Diane Marlin posted that “the financial foundation had to be built first.”
This comment was made while protests throughout hundreds of American cities, including Champaign-Urbana, were raising awareness of historical and local racial injustices. One recurring thread among them was how Black people were being policed differently than White people. Recent narratives by local Black citizens in The News-Gazette attest to this reality and truth.
It is time to take a look at Urbana’s unsuccessful response to eradicate its own long history of traffic stop racial disparities and to understand why.
In 2004, the Urbana Police Department reported slightly more than 35 percent of all traffic stops involved African Americans. Since African American drivers compose significantly less than 35 percent of all drivers on Urbana streets, the initial data clearly showed that Black motorists were being over-policed by the UPD.
In 2010, the percent of African Americans composing traffic stops had risen to an all-time high of 38 percent. African Americans were now more than twice as likely to be stopped by the UPD than statistically expected.
In 2015, the Urbana IDOT Traffic Stop Data Task Force listed three possible explanations for the persistent traffic stop racial disparities: 1. Demographic and socio-economic differences, 2. Patterns of policing and 3. Racial profiling.
The mayor, city council and UPD publicly acknowledged the evidence of racial disparities and announced they were totally unacceptable. The city council approved and the UPD implemented a number of task force recommendations under the headings of statistics, policy and procedure, and community engagement.
In 2019, the UPD reported that African Americans composed nearly 34 percent of all Urbana’s traffic stops. What a shock. During 16 years, the racial disparity dropped little more than 1 percent. That is statistically insignificant, meaning no real change occurred.
How was that possible when hours of time were spent discussing this issue? Money was invested in data collection, officer training and expanded community outreach.
During this time period, Urbana also had three different mayors, a total change of city council members, four different chiefs of police, and likely a majority of new police officers due to retirements or career changes.
This outcome strongly indicates that both UPD and city staff culture have become institutionalized. Individuals change but the institution responds the same. Racial disparities have become seen as both normal and acceptable. This is a classic textbook example of institutional systemic racism. It is clear to see if people chose to look.
The mayor and city council gave the city’s financial structural deficit the highest priority and voted to change traditional finance practices that led to the structural deficit. At the same time, they did nothing to change traditional policing practices that maintained structural racism in the form of continued traffic stop racial disparities.
The mayor and city council need to change racially biased traffic stop practices with the same motivation, interest and commitment they used to change poor financial practices. The UPD needs to stop using traffic stops as a pretext to interrogate Black drivers, stop conducting excessive stops in minority neighborhoods, acknowledge and act upon the effects of implicit racial bias, and de-link traffic stops from other unrelated policing activity such as calls for service.
Beat officers also must do their part to change biased traffic enforcement tactics, thus taking ownership and professional pride in eliminating traffic stop racial disparities.
The city’s adoption of the NAACP’s 10 Principles and revising the Civilian Police Review Board ordinance are positive steps, but they do not address “root” causes.
After 16 years, we now know a fundamental change in policing practices is both necessary and warranted. The city council and UPD must recognize the urgency of the moment, the unfairness and inequity of the status quo, and act together to finally eradicate traffic stop racial disparities.
Anything less is another year of institutional racism.