Chicago’s Black, Latino drivers targets of racially biased traffic stops, ACLU lawsuit alleges

Fewer than 1% of the 600,000 stops made by Chicago police officers resulted in an arrest or the discovery of illegal drugs or a gun, according to the lawsuit.

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North Lawndale resident Jose Manuel Almanza Jr., 35, is one of five minority Chicagoans listed as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU of Illinois. According to the suit, Almanza has been stopped in his car a dozen times just since 2021. “They almost never say a reason, or maybe it’s something small, like a cracked tail light, and all they want to see is your driver’s license,” he said.

Jose Manuel Almanza Jr. is a 35-year-old Little Village community activist who is one of five minority Chicagoans listed as named plaintiffs in an ACLU lawsuit. According to the suit, Almanza has been stopped in his car a dozen times just since 2021. “They almost never say a reason, or maybe it’s something small, like a cracked tail light, and all they want to see is your driver’s license,” Almanza said. “It’s always this sense that we’re in the wrong because of where we live, we’re in the wrong because of what we look like.”

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

Black drivers in Chicago are four to seven times more likely to be pulled over by police than whites, while Latino drivers are stopped twice as often, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois claiming a racially biased pattern in how Chicago police enforce traffic laws.

Traffic stops on the city’s predominantly Black and Latino South and West sides, the lawsuit says, are typically for minor violations— or for no reason at all— and are a tool for officers to search and detain minority residents on the city’s West and South sides. The lawsuit, filed last week, comes less than a decade after the Chicago Police Department reached a settlement with the ACLU in a lawsuit over similarly disproportionate stops of minority pedestrians.

“Defendants’ mass traffic stop program is simply the newest chapter in their long and sordid history of employing mass-stop policing tactics that discriminate on the basis of race and national origin, touted as a campaign to supposedly fight crime in Chicago,” the lawsuit states, citing previous police department practices that have led to ACLU-backed lawsuits, from waves of “disorderly conduct” arrests in the 1980s, “gang loitering” offenses in the 1990s, and “stop-and-frisk” in the early 2000s.

Fewer than 1% of the 600,000 stops made by Chicago police officers resulted in an arrest or the discovery of illegal drugs or a gun, according to the lawsuit, but the frequent stops do serious damage to minority Chicagoans’ faith in police, the lawsuit states, citing police department records and community survey data. A 2023 survey cited in the report showed more than a quarter of Black respondents reported having been in a car that was stopped by police in the last year, versus 11% of Latinos and 7% of whites.

Jose Manuel Almanza Jr., a 35-year-old Little Village community activist who is one of five minority Chicagoans listed as named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the data come as no surprise. According to the suit, Almanza has been stopped in his car a dozen times just since 2021 and recalled being stopped even more frequently while driving as a teenager and in his 20s.

“They almost never say a reason, or maybe it’s something small, like a cracked tail light, and all they want to see is your driver’s license,” Almanza said. “It’s always this sense that we’re in the wrong because of where we live, we’re in the wrong because of what we look like. It’s not surprising there is mistrust between community members and the police.”

The lawsuit cites five times Almanza was stopped just in 2021, including one in which he claims officers pulled him over as he was driving home from his grandmother’s house near California Avenue and West 24th Street without saying what he’d done wrong, claimed to smell marijuana and searched his car and fanny pack without his consent, and frisked him. After they found nothing, they tossed him his driver’s license with a warning to “stay out of trouble,” he said.

When Almanza requested records about the stop under public records laws, the police department said there were none, despite state law requiring the department to document all traffic stops. The lawsuit also includes anecdotes from:

  • Eric Wilkins, a 52-year-old community organizer from Roseland, who recounted three times he was stopped by Chicago police officers on the South Side in 2022, none of which were documented in police department records
  • Mahari Bell, a 25-year-old veteran and former EMT who works part time as a meal delivery driver, and says he has been pulled over at least 10 times since 2017, including three stops in four days and three different police districts in March. Bell was never ticketed in any of the stops.
  • Jacquez Beasley, a 21 year-old Chicago Park District employee from Austin who reported being stopped 12 times since 2020, though he has never been ticketed for any offense.
  • Essence Johnson, a 29-year-old paralegal from Bronzeville, who said she had been stopped by police at least 14 times since 2018, including a 2019 incident in which police stopped her as she was returning a rental car, handcuffed her and threw her against a police SUV and injured her arm. Misdemeanor charges filed against her were dismissed.

The lawsuit cites departmental emails released by the activist groups Impact for Equity and Free 2 Move Coalition that showed the police department’s top brass demanding more traffic stops — including Ernest Cato III, who was then deputy chief of Area 4 and is now seeking to become head of the police department under Mayor Brandon Johnson — as a crime-fighting strategy. The lawsuit incorrectly identifies Cato as “Eric Cato,” and his rank as first deputy chief and the second in command to former Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, a post then held by Eric Carter.

In the summer and fall of 2020, Cato sent a flurry of emails informing commanders that traffic stop tallies in some of the city’s most dangerous police districts were “not sufficient” and repeatedly urged commanders to increase the number of stops.

“Look at your traffic stop strategy and be prepared to address how you will utilize traffic stops to address violence,” he wrote to district commanders in a September 2020 email that included the districts’ statistics. “Effective traffic stops ... decrease violence.”

Subsequent emails from supervisors under Cato show them pushing subordinates to make more stops. The lawsuit also notes that deposition testimony in a lawsuit filed by Chicago Police Lt. Franklin Paz, who was demoted from the citywide Community Safety Team. Officers said team Cmdr. Michael Barz set quotas for traffic stops, as well as arrests, in the neighborhoods targeted for “missions” by the team. Paz has sued the department, claiming he was kicked off the team in retaliation for raising concerns about Barz’s quotas.

In a statement provided by his attorney, Paz wrote that the “vast majority” of his fellow officers want to do their jobs the right way.

“However, when you have supervisors in the upper echelon of a law enforcement agency demanding quantity over quality and comparing certain metrics against others, it will not only compromise officers’ integrity and safety, it will continue to erode community trust, which is a critical component to solving public violence and other serious crimes,” Paz wrote.

The number of traffic stops citywide surged after the city in 2015 entered a settlement with ACLU Illinois over “stop-and-frisk” pedestrian stops. Pedestrian stops fell from a high of 710,000 in 2014 to just 107,000 in 2016. But traffic stops climbed from 83,000 in 2014 to 500,000 last year — though the number of tickets issued citywide fell during the same period, the lawsuit states. In each year since 2017, nearly two-thirds of drivers stopped are Black, 20% are Latino and 12% are white, though the percentage of the driving-age population are roughly the same.

The lawsuit calls for a permanent injunction barring the city from continuing the “mass traffic stop program” and creates a plan to change policies and practices and train and monitor officers to prevent another pattern of biased stops. It also asks that the police department delegate enforcement of traffic offenses that don’t involve moving violations to a non-law enforcement authority.

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