‘Little has been done with’ 17 years of data showing racial disparities in traffic stops


Even though Black people make up 20.4% of the city’s population, data released by the Illinois Department of Transportation this summer shows Black drivers accounted for 46.2% of traffic stops by the Springfield Police Department in 2020.

Black drivers in Springfield were stopped more than double the rate of white motorists last year despite more than a decade and a half of data highlighting the disparity.

Recently released data from the Illinois Department of Transportation shows Black drivers accounted for 46.2% of all traffic stops by the Springfield Police Department in 2020. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Black people make up 20.4% of the city’s population.

The traffic stop analysis conducted annually found Black drivers in the city were 3.5 times more likely to be stopped by police than their white counterparts — which was an increase over 2019 when Black drivers were 2.7 times more likely to be pulled over than white motorists.

"We need for this disparity to stop,” Springfield NAACP President Teresa Haley said. “And how do we know when it stops? When people stop complaining and stop reporting to our organization that this is going on.”

The IDOT data has consistently shown a traffic stop disparity in each of the last 17 years when compared by race. Overall, SPD pulled over drivers who were not white at more than twice the rate of white motorists in all but one year from 2004 to 2018. The lone exception was 2012 when minority drivers were 1.88 times more likely to be stopped by local police. Still, the IDOT report shows Black drivers accounted for 35.4% of stops that year. 

The most recent study also found SPD was more likely to conduct consent searches of Black drivers.

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SPD declined The State Journal-Register’s repeated interview requests about the traffic stop data but said in a statement the department was "committed to providing fair and unbiased policing in all areas, including traffic stops. All Springfield Police Officers receive cultural diversity and awareness training during the training academy. This initial training is reinforced annually with all officers during mandatory training. Additionally, department policies specifically prohibit discriminatory practices in detaining, stopping, or searching of persons and vehicles."

Local and state organizations such as the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union expressed frustration with the lack of progress in reducing the number of stops.

“While the numbers ebb and flow and change, the reality is that little has been done with it,” said Ed Yohnka, ACLU Illinois director of communications and public policy. “There hasn’t been this global effort, or organized effort, to really figure out what to do with these numbers and how to address them."

The state law requiring all police departments to report statistics on the race of drivers stopped was a major piece of legislation initially sponsored by former President Barack Obama in 2003 when he served in the Illinois Senate. The analysis was introduced to determine if police in Illinois engaged in racial profiling on roadways. Through legislation, the reporting and analysis later became a yearly mandate to combat the disparities.

Building on past conversations 

The IDOT study shows the racial disparity in traffic stops is not limited to Springfield. Across Illinois, Black drivers were 2.76 times more likely to be stopped by law enforcement than their white counterparts.

Black people represent 13.9% of Illinois licensed drivers but the 2020 data shows they made up more than 38% of traffic stops in the state. The latest numbers were a slight increase over 2019 when Black Illinoisans were 2.73 times more likely to be stopped than white drivers.

The data shows larger disparities in Bloomington and Peoria where Black drivers were 6.2 and 4.1 times more likely to be stopped by local police than their white counterparts.

Black drivers in Rockford, however, were stopped at 2.5 times the rate of white motorists.

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Springfield ACLU President Ken Page said he plans to meet with Springfield Police Chief Kenny Winslow, Sangamon County Sheriff Jack Campbell and Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder to discuss the latest traffic stop data and try to build on past conversations about the disparity.

"At some point, this data is going to come out again and we’re going to have to do something more than just going to sit down and talk to them,” Page said. “I don’t know what that looks like. But I know something should be done. Our first line is to go and sit down and talk — to say, ‘This data isn’t good. And we all agree that it’s not good. So, what are we doing to change it? How can we work together to change it?’”

Consent searches were another area where the IDOT data showed disparities.  Even though the searches are performed with a driver’s voluntary consent  — and do not require probable causes, reasonable suspicion, or a warrant — they were more often conducted with Black motorists.

Of those stopped by SPD, the IDOT data shows consent searches were conducted in 5.7% of stops involving Black drivers in 2020, compared to 2.8% of stops involving white motorists. The figures were similar in 2019 with 4% of stops involving Black drivers resulting in consent searches compared to 1.9% of stops with white drivers.

Despite the disparity in the percentage of consent searches, contraband was found at about the same rate among Black and white drivers. 

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Page said he previously suggested to Winslow that local police do away with the request for consent searches. The longtime ACLU leader and former Springfield NAACP president said Black drivers often feel pressured to agree to the searches or are afraid to decline the requests. 

Statewide data from 2020 shows 1.09% of stops involving white drivers led to consent searches as compared to 1.39% of stops involving Black motorists. In 2019, consent searches were performed on 0.93% of stops involving white drivers and 1.02% of stops where the driver was Black.

"We would like to see their training,” said Page, of what he plans to discuss with local law enforcement following the release of the latest traffic stop data. “What type of written training do they have on that issue with racial profiling? And how’s that done? Because we don’t want to see the data looking like that in Springfield. That’s not a good thing. Nobody wants to see that."

Understanding the disparity

The Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office, which primarily handles calls in the unincorporated areas of the county, made 1,732 traffic stops in 2020. Black drivers accounted for 30.83% of the stops.

Even though Black drivers were pulled over at a higher rate, 42.5% of the traffic stops involving white drivers led to citations, as compared to the 36.32% of Black motorists who received citations.

“I can’t explain to you why the numbers are what they are,” Campbell said. “We train our deputies to watch for violations, we go through cultural diversity with them, we discuss racial profiling with them to ensure that they’re not doing that and then we rely on them to adhere to that. So, I can’t identify to you as to how this happens, or what we can do better. We are simply looking for violators. So, it’s not anything you can easily remedy.”

The social, emotional and economic impact of traffic stops is also often more adverse among Black people, an Urbana Traffic Stop Data Task Force concluded. The city’s task force spent more than a year researching the disparities in communities around the country, taking a deeper look at their own data with the help of a statistical researcher, and listening to people’s experiences to better understand the root cause of the traffic stop disparity and its impact.

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"We did find that in areas where police were doing additional policing, they were also doing a lot of investigatory stops where they thought something was going on in an area,” said Peter Resnick, who chaired the task force that began meeting in June 2014 and issued its findings in October 2015. “Maybe there was a house that had a lot of traffic and so they thought there were drug issues in that particular block or neighborhood. They didn’t have probable cause to stop anyone for drug trafficking. But they did find a traffic violation, and then did a little additional looking around the car or asking questions, or what have you, due to that stop. That was increasing the disparity.”

Regular police presence in areas with higher crime, and larger Black populations, is something Springfield leaders with the NAACP, ACLU and city council said they have heard from local law enforcement when they have inquired about factors that have led to the racial disparity reflected in the traffic stop data.

The explanation has caused a level of concern.

"If you’re saying these are areas where there’s high crime, what does a traffic stop have to do with that,” Yohnka questioned. “A traffic stop is a way to make a contact between police and someone from the community. What you don’t want is traffic stops to be used simply as a way of kind of keeping tabs on people — of stopping, finding out who’s in cars, finding out who is where just simply on the basis of some sort of traffic violation. We’re supposed to enforce traffic laws for safety, not to create additional police contacts.”

Coming together for solutions 

Page attributes information such as the traffic stop data in helping to pass local and state police reforms. 

“If you go back from the time that it was first collected until now, we did not have dashcams, there were no bodycams, we didn’t have police review boards and things like that, and places where citizens felt comfortable making complaints regarding police,” he explained. “There have been a lot of changes, and very good changes, that have come out of this data even though the data doesn’t look good. It gives the city an opportunity to sit down and say, ‘What are we doing?’ And, if this data is still looking like this, then something is wrong with what we’re doing.”

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In addition to quarterly meetings with Winslow to discuss a variety of issues, including the ongoing traffic stop disparity, Haley said she also focuses much of her attention on educating the Black community on the realities of the data. That education works to ensure people know and follow the laws of the road to minimize potentially traumatic, negative or harmful interactions with police.

"I want to see the numbers go down,” said Haley, who estimates the Springfield NAACP receives 10 to 15 complaints annually about people’s negative experiences during traffic stops. “And I want to see the numbers go down for the right reasons, not for the wrong reasons — not because all of a sudden, you’re scared. I want to see the numbers go down because (police are) doing their job and they’re treating all citizens equally." 

The Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office has received “very few external citizen complaints in regard to traffic stops for any reason, let alone for racial profiling type of reasons,” according to Campbell.

"I just don’t know that there’s much more we’re going to change in our tactics or operations here,” the sheriff said, adding that his department is open to ideas and feedback from the community and local leaders. “We’re aware of it, and we will continue to monitor those numbers and identify case by case if there’s a complaint about it.”

SPD’s statement acknowledged the IDOT’s report and explained that it also continues to examine the numbers presented.

"Upon reviewing the data related to traffic stops conducted by the Springfield Police Department, we believe the data released is incomplete," said the local police department in its statement. "We are working diligently to identify the errors in the reporting mechanism so that a complete data set can be analyzed."

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According to IDOT, the law — Public Act 101-0024 — makes each law enforcement agency responsible for the accuracy of the data they submit.

Collectively, state and local leaders said they want to work with the community and law enforcement to address the traffic stop disparities, acknowledging they don’t have all the answers.

"This is an opportunity to take that data and from just a management perspective, to figure out what you do, and to figure out how to really do as much as one can with it and use it for the community’s best interest,” Yohnka said. “Talk to the community about the data. Share it, show what happened, show what you’re going to do to address it and where there are concerns.”

Contact Natalie Pierre at npierre@gannett.com or on Twitter @NataliePierre_

via The State Journal-Register

September 5, 2021 at 10:51AM

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