Illinois debates effectiveness of racial profile data

SHARE Illinois debates effectiveness of racial profile data

Lawmakers and police still can’t agree on the results of an Illinois racial profiling measure first pushed by then-state Sen. Barack Obama. The discussion comes as Democrats now push to make the temporary program permanent. Illinois
State Senator Kwame Raoul is the sponsor of the plan. | AP file photo

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A state law requiring police departments to keep statistics on the race of motorists they pull over is set to expire, and debate is underway about whether the 14-year-old program is effective or simply an expensive, burdensome task for officers.

The landmark study to determine whether Illinois police engage in racial profiling on the roadways — a practice derisively described as combatting the offense of “driving while black” — was one of the major pieces of legislation achieved by former President Barack Obama when he served in the Illinois Senate.

“When I was in Illinois I passed racial profiling legislation,” said Obama of the measure in a 2013 news conference in reference to the slaying of Trayvon Martin, which sparked a national debate over racial profiling. “And it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.”

Obama’s replacement, Sen. Kwame Raoul, now a candidate for state attorney general, wants the program extended when it expires in 2019, calling it “a useful tool for law enforcement,” one that police departments can use to see what they’re “doing, right or wrong.”

The measure, which has wide Democratic support, could come up for a vote as early as next week. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner did not respond to requests for comment on whether he’d support an extension.

Raoul has seen to it that the practice has been extended several times since the Illinois Department of Transportation began collecting data in 2004, but experts differ on what the results show.

Generally, minorities get stopped more often than whites. More importantly, once a law enforcement officer stops a motorist, the data show minorities are more often subject to vehicle searches.

There’s been no standardized statewide police training to come out of the program, nor has police racial profiling ever been criminalized — an attempt in 2015 never got off the ground.

Raoul said the data was referenced in a 2015 police reform plan that mandates departments have implicit bias training, but that measure is light on training specifics.

Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, said it’s time for the program to end. Individual departments can collect the data if they want, he said.

“Originally, the traffic stop data was set up to be temporary, where we’d evaluate the data and see what needs to be changed,” he said. “Fourteen years later and we’ve kicked the can on (doing anything with) the study. What’s this data providing?”

The 2016 report, the most recent one available, shows minorities statewide were 38 percent more likely to be stopped than whites. That’s up from the previous year, when minorities were 25 percent more likely to be stopped.

But Alexander Weiss, the study’s lead consultant, notes that police often can’t see the driver’s race when they decide to pull a car over. Instead, it’s more helpful to look at police behavior during the stop, specifically whether an officer conducts what’s known as a consent search, which is when an officer has a hunch that the motorist is involved in a crime and asks permission to search the vehicle without a warrant. The study looks at the so-called “hit rate,” or when an officer’s hunch is correct and he finds contraband in the vehicle. Whether the “hit rate” is different for whites and minorities is an essential question for those concerned with racial profiling.

“We’ve pointed out evidence of racial disproportionality in consent searches,” said Weiss, former director of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety. “What we’ve seen over the course of the study is that there are substantially fewer consent searches than there were when we began.”

Moreover, the gap between the number of searches involving minorities and whites is closing, Weiss said. But only about two in five police departments in Illinois conduct more than 100 vehicle searches a year.

Weiss added that more than half of states collect traffic stop data and that Illinois was a “pioneer” in the field. Illinois started collecting data on pedestrian stops, too, in 2016.

Individual agencies are left to interpret the raw data as they choose. The city of Urbana, for example, set up a task force dedicated to analyzing its data.

Sgt. Andrew Charles, an Urbana officer on the task force, said the department implemented training on “implicit bias” after looking at the data.

Charles is undecided about continuing the program. Filling out a report for every stop is time-consuming and a bureaucratic headache that police departments have to put up with without state financial assistance. But he says the program has its benefits.

“Law enforcement, as with many professions, falls into a routine and continues to do things because they always have,” he said. “Anything that prompts people to examine their routines and think about what they are trying to accomplish and why they are taking the actions that they are, is a positive thing.”

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