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WATCHDOGS: 71 percent of Chicago cops’ street stops are of blacks

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus, says he’s concerned the police continue to stop people without a “reasonable suspicion” of a crime. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

The number of street stops by the Chicago Police Department has plummeted by 85 percent in a year, but African-Americans continued to account for the vast majority of those detained and frisked, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.

That’s the case even though African-Americans were no more likely to be found with weapons or drugs than people of other racial backgrounds, the Sun-Times found by analyzing data on stops collected by the department for the first time in 2016.

The police reported stopping thousands of people because they fit the description of a criminal suspect, were found near the scene of a crime, or acted in a manner deemed “indicative” of drug dealing.

In most cases, officers checked a box on their reports for “other” to explain the justification for the stop. The department hasn’t released records to show whether further details were provided.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” says Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus. He says many of his South Side constituents would like the police to be more aggressive in searching for guns.

But Sawyer says he’s concerned the police continue to stop people without a “reasonable suspicion” of a crime, which is required for an investigatory stop to be constitutional.

“Were the reasons legitimate?” the alderman says. “Or is it still ‘walking while black?’ ”

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says the department tries to safeguard rights as it protects the public: “Good policing and civil rights are not mutually exclusive.”

Guglielmi notes that “most of CPD’s investigatory stops occurred in high-crime areas, primarily on the South and West Sides, precisely in the districts driving violence.”

The police for years were supposed to fill out “contact cards” after every investigatory street stop. But they often failed to include such basic information as the justification for the stop or offered reasons that weren’t constitutional, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois found in a 2015 report.

Starting last year, under an agreement between the department and the ACLU, officers were required to complete more detailed forms showing the reason for the stop, the time and location, and the race, age and gender of the person.

Data the police department culled from the stop forms through Dec. 4 of last year show:

• Police made 85,302 street stops through the first 11 months of 2016 — putting them on pace for 92,411 by year’s end. That’s 85 percent fewer than 2015, when they made more than 601,700 stops.

• The race of those stopped hasn’t changed. A 2015 analysis by the ACLU found that 72 percent of those stopped by police between May and August 2014 were black. According to the 2016 police data, 71 percent of those stopped were African-American, 19 percent were Hispanic, 9 percent white and 1 percent Asian.

• African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely to be frisked. Pat-downs were done during 30 percent of the stops involving Hispanics, 29 percent involving African-Americans, 26 percent involving Asians and 22 percent involving whites.

• Yet weapons were found on African-Americans and Hispanics as infrequently as on everyone else — in just 2 percent of stops. Drugs or other “contraband” were recovered in 4 percent of the stops for each group.

• Under the ACLU agreement, cops are required to check one or more boxes on their street-stop forms to indicate the reason for the stop. But the most common reason given in 2016 — checked on 59 percent of the forms — was “other.” Officers are then supposed to write a more detailed explanation, but the data released to the Sun-Times doesn’t show that.

• The next most common explanations given were that the person: “fit the description” of an offender provided by a witness (13 percent), was near the scene of a crime (13 percent), was targeted as part of “gang/narcotic-related enforcement” (12 percent), was suspected of participating in a drug deal (8 percent) or fit the description of an offender from a flash message (7 percent).

• The average age of those stopped was 33. That’s older than the typical age of perpetrators and victims of violent crime in Chicago. According to a recent study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, about half of all homicide victims and suspects in Chicago last year were in their 20s. Roughly a fifth were in their 30s.

The release of the data comes as the department’s practices — including its documentation of stops and frisks — are at the center of a politicized national debate. President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to “send in the feds” to quell Chicago’s violence. And Trump vowed during his campaign to increase stop-and-frisk policing in cities like Chicago.

He’d find support from some Chicago cops who say the number of street stops plunged because the new forms take too long to fill out. In interviews, they say the police have responded by making fewer street stops, and that’s one reason the number of gun crimes has risen in the past year or so.

“The program wasn’t implemented with a lot of forethought,” says one veteran officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Are some people using it as an excuse? Yes. There’s going to be a long learning curve. But the sad part is that these new officers who are coming on, they’re seeing that we’re not doing a lot. They’re kind of frustrated.”

The Justice Department report on the police department, released in the waning days of the Obama administration, noted that officers were poorly prepared to use the new forms. But it also said detailed documentation of street stops “has been in place for many years in other large-city police departments.” And it included numerous stories from Chicagoans who felt they were stopped, searched and subjected to background checks based on how they looked or where they lived.

The report noted that crime continued to fall in New York City even after its police department curtailed its aggressive stop-and-frisk practices following a court ruling that they were unconstitutional.

Karen Sheley, director of the police practices project for the ACLU of Illinois, rejects the notion that the new requirements in Chicago — and the drop in stops that followed — led to a surge in crime. Sheley says police were making too many stops in the years before the agreement, including 250,000 in the summer of 2014.

“The high number of stops was really untenable and had to go down,” she says.

As part of the agreement, former federal magistrate Judge Arlander Keys was tapped to issue reports on its progress. His first report is expected in the next few weeks.

The police took a key step forward when they began collecting more data on stops, says Ald. Jason Ervin (28th). His West Side ward includes the 4200 block of West Madison, where cops recorded 665 stops in the first 11 months of 2016 — more than on any other block citywide. Seven of the 10 blocks with the most stops are on the West Side.

“I’ve got a lot of shootings, a lot of homicides, a lot of narcotic sales, so I would hope I have a lot of police activity,” Ervin says. “As long as they’re doing it in a manner consistent with the U.S. Constitution, residents and officials will back them.”

Last May 27, Supt. Eddie Johnson mobilized thousands of extra officers to try to prevent violence over the Memorial Day weekend. Police recorded 420 stops that day — the highest daily total all year.

Police made two of those stops after seeing two black men near Madison and Pulaski hand off something in exchange for cash. The officers suspected a drug deal on a block known for them.

According to their arrest report, the cops detained the suspected buyer and patted him down, recovering a small amount of marijuana. But the stop database doesn’t mention any drugs were seized.

The other man took off. Six hours later, the police caught him in the same spot and reported finding a bag with $20 worth of pot in his front pocket. But records of the stop don’t mention police frisking the second man or recovering the marijuana.

Both men were charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession. Both cases were thrown out of court.