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Illinois Police Question Traffic-Stop Study

SPRINGFIELD -- The 2010 results for a traffic stop study were just released by the Illinois Department of Transportation. The study is supposed to determine whether minority drivers were being stopped and ticketed more often than white drivers in Illinois. 

Five years ago, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation to continue collecting this data.

“Three years simply is not enough time for a study as important as this, so extending it is a step in the right direction,” Blagojevich said in July 2006. “We want to take every step possible to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and equally during traffic stops.”

Since 2004, every officer who makes a traffic stop is required to fill out a separate form indicating the driver’s race, the reason for the stop, whether the driver was given a ticket or warning and whether the car was searched. Each department compiles the annual statistics and reports them to the state.

In that first year, the controversial study seemed to show minorities were more likely to be stopped, searched and ticketed. National experts were brought in and local departments enrolled in sensitivity training. The data collection, which was only supposed to go for four years, was extended.

From the beginning, the study’s methodology and usefulness were questioned. Officers cannot ask the driver their race, so they make an educated guess, which opens the data to all sorts of interpretation and inaccuracies. Towns argued that the study’s estimates of the racial makeup of the driving population was skewed.

Over the years, the release of the data became more low key and garnered less media attention. Some departments’ original hesitancy has eroded as the forms became routine.Five years later, many local police departments are questioning whether this study is still a good use of local and state resources.

The study’s authors caution that there is no pass or fail for police departments. With that in mind, few local departments can claim to be more even-handed than Yorkville.

According to state numbers, 57 percent of white and minority drivers stopped in Yorkville get tickets. Three-tenths of one percent of both white and minority drivers stopped are asked to be searched.

Yet, even in Yorkville, Police Chief Rich Hart has raised questions about the methods for collecting the data. And, more importantly to him, the purpose.

“I hate to say it because I understand the concern about who we’re stopping, but this is basically an unfunded mandate,” said Hart. “This is putting a burden of millions of dollars (statewide) to gather this information. It costs us man-hours that, in this time, we just can’t afford.”


Only one local department — Elburn — had a percentage gap larger than the state average for issuing tickets. Statewide, a local driver received a ticket 55 percent of the time in 2010, compared to 63 percent of the time for minority drivers. In Elburn, 40 percent of white drivers were ticketed, compared to 60 percent of minority drivers.

However, just 14 percent of the drivers pulled over in Elburn were minorities, meaning ticketing numbers were more greatly affected by a small number of tickets. The state’s data showed virtually no difference in Elburn’s searches for white or minority drivers. (Elburn Chief Steven Smith did not return calls for comment.)

For most towns and counties, the numbers raised no red flags. Looking at the percentage of drivers who were issued tickets, most showed little disparity in white vs. minority drivers. In Sugar Grove, both white and minority drivers received tickets 73 percent of the time.

“It confirms to other people that we’re doing everything properly,” Sugar Grove Police Chief Brad Sauer said.

After seven years, Sauer is also wondering what the study is trying to show. Most of the larger local departments review individual officer statistics monthly and address any possible problems immediately. For the smaller departments, reporting the numbers can take staff they don’t have.

“It’s just something else we have to track,” said Somonauk Chief Richard Smith, one of five officers in the department. “Big departments have clerks and aides.”

Alex Weiss has been involved with Illinois’ traffic stop study almost from the inception. Weiss and University of Illinois at Chicago professor Dennis Rosenbaum authored the 2010 version of the study. Weiss believes departments complaining about cost raise a legitimate concern. But Weiss also believes the study still performs an important function.

He said years ago, officers were able to make a traffic stop and search the entire car and, if they found no contraband, would never have to indicate they made a stop. Citizens who complained they were being harassed would be stymied because department brass had no record of a stop.

But since the study started, police departments are better able to identify potential problem officers. They also have more information about who is driving through their towns. If one city notices many people from Chicago are coming there, it might spur them to investigate why and what that means, Weiss said.

“In my opinion, this is data they probably should collect,” he said. “Compared with other things, it’s a pretty good investment.”

Weiss equates the arc of the reaction to the traffic study data — from anger to acceptance — to cameras in squad cars. When that technology was first introduced, many officers bristled because the believed the videos would be used against them. Now, officers prefer the recording because it’s concrete evidence that they were acting properly.

The same thing is true for traffic-stop data, Weiss said. Departments can use the numbers to show the public they have nothing to hide. Many departments agree.

“It greatly assists us with transparency,” said Batavia Deputy Chief Daniel Eul. “I know sometimes people think we hide behind the blue wall, but that’s just not the case.”

Kane County Sheriff Pat Perez acknowledges that collecting and transmitting the data does take some time. But he said it’s only a few minutes per stop, at most. And if that keeps fairness at the front of deputies’ minds, it’s probably a good thing, he said.

“Is it hurting us to continue to do this? I don’t see that it’s hurting anything,” Perez said. “And in terms of a public relations, I think the public would like to know that things are being done the same across the board.”

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