People driving on the West Side are the most likely to be pulled over by police, with small pockets of the city accounting for far greater percentages of stops than much larger affluent areas.
But if officers are pulling over drivers in the predominantly Black neighborhoods with the intent of searching for guns or drugs, as some critics suspect, the strategy is not effective. The stops largely don’t lead to gun or drug seizures — and rarely even lead to traffic tickets.
An analysis of 2020 Chicago traffic stop data shows Black drivers in West Side neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by the department’s unequal traffic enforcement. In one five-by-eight-block stretch on the West Side, there were more traffic stops than in a 31.5-square-mile police district on the outskirts of the city.
The analysis raises questions about whether Chicago police are targeting traffic stops in majority Black neighborhoods to try to prevent crime — a move that would violate people’s constitutional rights, critics said.
“If you’re doing that many stops and you’re not finding anything, what’s really going on? Most of the time, [police] don’t find anything,” said Mark Lewis, director of holistic legal services at Lawndale Christian Legal Center.
Illinois Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Study data shows traffic stops conducted by Chicago police have nearly quadrupled in recent years, from around 85,000 stops in 2015 to 327,224 traffic stops in 2020.
Black drivers were pulled over six times more than white drivers in 2020, despite only 30 percent of the city’s population being Black. Of the 327,224 traffic stops made by Chicago police in 2020, about 62 percent of the drivers stopped were Black, about 24 percent were Hispanic and about 11 percent were white.
The racial disparity is largely due to a concentration of stops in West Side neighborhoods — especially East and West Garfield Park, Austin, Lawndale and Humboldt Park — and South Side neighborhoods, including Englewood.
Block Club Chicago analyzed how many traffic stops happened in each of the 22 police districts. The stops were also mapped in smaller geographic areas, called police beats, that make up each district.
Four of the five police districts with the most traffic stops were on the West Side, the data showed. The districts with the most traffic stops:
- The 11th Police District, which includes East and West Garfield Park and parts of Humboldt Park, with 41,736 stops.
- The 7th District, which includes East and West Englewood, with 27,101 stops.
- The 10th District, which includes North Lawndale and Little Village, with 24,979 stops.
- The 15th District, which includes much of Austin, with 24,066 stops.
- The 25th District, which encompasses parts of Austin, Belmont Cragin, Montclare, Humboldt Park and Hermosa, with 23,515 stops.
Together, the four West Side districts account for 35 percent of all traffic stops in the city.
Residents living in the 11th Police District account for less than 3 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2020 analysis of census data by CNN data editor John Keefe. But 13 percent of all traffic stops in 2020 happened in that district, police data shows.
By comparison, in the 16th District — which covers Jefferson Park, O’Hare, Norwood Park, Edison Park, Forest Glen, Portage Park and Dunning on the Northwest Side — there were just 4,575 stops in 2020. More than 7 percent of the city’s population lives there but it accounted for just 1.4 percent of all traffic stops.
Several police beats on the West Side — some as small as five-by-eight blocks — had more traffic stops than the entire 31.5-square-mile 16th district, where there were just 4,575 stops in 2020. A beat straddling Humboldt Park and Garfield Park had 6,081 stops, and another in South Austin had 5,875, more than any other police beats in the city, data shows.
What Citizens Asked For — Or Unconstitutional?
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), whose ward covers much of the 11th Police District, said the tremendous number of traffic stops on the West Side isn’t a major issue as long as they are being conducted in a constitutional manner.
“Chicago police is in these areas trying to do the best they can to curb criminal activity. If traffic stops are part of the tools that they’re using to curb criminal activity, as long as those things have been done in a constitutionally sound manner, then I think that is what citizens in the community have asked for,” Ervin said.
But many stops don’t result in tickets. In 91.2 percent of stops last year, Chicago cops didn’t issue any citations. On the West Side, cops didn’t issue tickets in 93.8 percent of stops.
Chicago cops ticketed drivers in 8.8 percent of stops citywide. Statewide, cops gave out tickets in 34.2 percent of stops. In suburban Aurora, it’s 29 percent. In Joliet, the ticket rate is 69 percent, according to state data.
And though Black drivers are pulled over a disproportionate amount, its white drivers who are more likely to be ticketed. About 9.3 percent of white drivers, 8.9 percent of Hispanic drivers and 8.4 percent of Black drivers were ticketed after being pulled over in 2020, data shows.
Most traffic stops don’t result in guns, drugs or drug paraphernalia being taken off the streets, either. Of the 327,224 traffic stops last year, contraband was found in 1,379 of them — just .42 percent of stops.
Of the 11,273 guns taken in by police last year, 370 were found in traffic stops.
In the West Side police beat where more than 6,000 traffic stops happened in 2020, more than any other place in the city, contraband was found in just .16 percent of stops, lower than the city average, the data shows.
“This is causing more harm than good. This is not an effective law enforcement strategy, and we need to rethink it,” said Rachel Murphy, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Illinois branch.
The data may also indicate an overwhelming majority of traffic stops have little to nothing to do with traffic safety, said Sonny Thatch, managing attorney of Communities Partnering 4 Peace’s Justice Corps, a free community legal clinic.
The lack of overall ticketing and massive racial disparity in stops could suggest officers are stopping drivers in targeted areas as a way to search people’s cars and investigate other crime, rather than to keep the streets safe, Thatch said.
“It implies that traffic may not be the focus of the stop. The true focus of the officer may be ascertaining whether somebody has a weapon. I’ve seen [gun charges] result out of a traffic stop in some of our cases. Possession of drugs. It seems like they’re looking for something with a little more heft,” Thatch said.
Justice Corps provides free legal aid, especially for expungements and sealings, through neighborhood groups in areas where many young people are in the justice system, including in Austin and Garfield Park. In those neighborhoods, there is a “pattern of multiple traffic stops” among clients who want help getting their records expunged, Thatch said.
Many of those seeking expungements were stopped for traffic violations like failing to wear a seatbelt or speeding, but they wound up with more serious charges, like possession, driving with a suspended license or disorderly conduct, Thatch said. Some had a suspected gang affiliation noted in their arrest records, he said.
“That leads me to believe possibly some officers are patrolling areas that have a reported high level of gang or street organization activity, and [they] are making stops of individuals they suspect to be affiliated with street organizations for the purpose of further investigation. Traffic seems to be an easy means to do that,” Thatch said.
If the surge in traffic stops is a strategy for dealing with other crime, then officers have the discretion to increase traffic enforcement and focus on drivers who meet the profile of who they expect a criminal to be. That can “lead to bias becoming one of the factors that officers, maybe unconsciously, use in deciding who to pull over,” Murphy said.
“It definitely raises Fourth Amendment concerns. If they are stopping people without legal justification, then that is a violation of your constitutional rights,” Murphy said.
Also troubling are allegations by a 20-year police veteran that the department uses illegal quotas requiring officers to conduct more traffic stops and arrests, Murphy said. The whistleblower, Lt. Franklin Paz, filed a lawsuit early this year against the city that claimed the policy requires officers to make baseless stops that violate people’s civil rights.
“Numbers-driven policing leads to illegal policing in the neighborhoods of people of color,” Torreya Hamilton, the whistleblower’s attorney, told the Chicago Tribune. “Forcing police officers to generate certain numbers-driven activity levels, that leads only to illegal stops.”
Do Cops Target Traffic Stops In Neighborhoods That Struggle With Crime? It Depends Who You Ask
Community Policing Director Glen Brooks admitted in 2018 that Chicago police target traffic enforcement in neighborhoods that struggle with crime.
“When we have communities experiencing levels of violence, we do increase traffic enforcement,” Brooks said.
Police Supt. David Brown recently walked back those statements and denied West Side drivers were being targeted. The increased traffic enforcement is not because of racial bias, but because residents have asked for more police activity to stop violence, he said.
“I realize there is a long history regarding allegations of bias in traffic stops. I would overlay that where violence is occurring is where people in those communities want police to do their jobs,” Brown said.
Though officers seldom find contraband in stopped cars, the huge number of stops on the West Side has still made traffic enforcement one of the primary ways people in the area enter the criminal justice system, Lewis said.
“This is a huge pipeline, a huge conduit for Chicago police to infuse the criminal justice system with young people,” Lewis said.
More than half of the young people with criminal cases at the West Side legal clinic were arrested after being pulled over for a minor traffic issue, Lewis said. The stops are an “unlawful and unethical policing practice” that puts all residents in affected areas, especially young people, under an unfair level of scrutiny, he said.
“They usually don’t know their rights,” Lewis said. “They’re young people who are unfortunately in a system that oppresses them, not intermittently but day to day, every time they take a breath.”
The traffic stops and arrests demonstrate how overpolicing contributes to the cycle of mass incarceration and distrust toward police from communities who feel unfairly targeted, Lewis said.
“If a large proportion of our future is suffering from PTSD because they’ve been abused by the system, they’re going to carry that with them … and that causes breaks and cracks in society,” Lewis said.
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