Illinois traffic stops of Black drivers reach a 20-year high
State law and oversight board fall short of goals to collect law enforcement data and to reduce racial disparities in police traffic stops.
This is the first installment of a series, “Profiled: The State of Traffic Stops in Illinois,” published in partnership with the Investigative Project on Race and Equity.
Twenty years ago, a state senator from the South Side of Chicago sponsored groundbreaking legislation to combat racial profiling by police. The 2003 law required law enforcement agencies throughout Illinois to compile and report data on traffic stops in their jurisdictions, including the race of the driver, the circumstances of the stop and the outcome.
The Illinois Traffic Stop Statistical Study Act was hailed as a promising tool against the widespread police practice of stopping a disproportionate number of Black motorists, often with little or no cause, for what critics dubbed “Driving While Black.”
“Initially, the police departments across the state were resistant,” the bill’s sponsor, then-state Sen. Barack Obama, would later recall as president. “But actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and, in turn, be more helpful in applying the law.”
Today, however, Obama’s signature state legislative accomplishment has failed to live up to its promise. The percentage of traffic stops involving Black drivers continues to rise, unabated. More law enforcement agencies aren’t complying with the law. And the state seems incapable of reversing the tide.
On the 20th anniversary of the law’s passage, WBEZ and the Investigative Project on Race and Equity compiled and analyzed two decade’s worth of traffic stop data collected under the law – 42.5 million records from more than 1,000 jurisdictions across Illinois – interviewed experts and reviewed public records. Among the findings:
- The racial gap is widening. In the last two years, stops involving Black drivers have topped 30.5% of all traffic stops statewide, up from 17.5% in 2004, the first year data was released. The state’s adult population is 13.6% Black.
- The problem is statewide. In Chicago, stops of Black drivers in 2022 were more than four times that of white drivers, even though the city has a larger white adult population. In the rest of the state, Black drivers make up 9.5% of the adult population but 21.5% of all traffic stops outside of Chicago.
- Police increasingly fail to comply with the law. Last year, 1 in 5 law enforcement agencies failed to submit their traffic stop data as required by the law. Some missed the state’s deadline or submitted incomplete data.
- Efforts to strengthen the law have failed. The oversight board established by the Illinois General Assembly to monitor data collection and recommend improvements, at one point, went seven years without meeting. Today, the board has vacant seats and often lacks a quorum to take action.
“Chicago has a long history of disparities in Black and Brown communities, especially on the South and West sides,” Mayor Brandon Johnson told WBEZ in a written statement. “It is disheartening to see that even today, residents in Black communities are targeted for traffic stops four times more than others, with my neighborhood of Austin seeing some of the highest rates of profiling in the state.”
Officials with the Illinois Department of Transportation, which administers data collection for the program, reported in 2019 the results do not “prove that there is racial profiling but may be taken as the basis for further inquiry.”
A spokesperson said IDOT’s role is focused on collecting the data, then sharing it with the General Assembly and the public. “The department does not provide additional analysis or any recommendations,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement.
However, the law requires IDOT to analyze the data and report its findings to the governor, the legislature, the oversight board and the individual law enforcement agencies. In its analysis, IDOT should “scrutinize” the data for evidence of disproportionate stops of minority drivers; a “substantial number” of false stops, including those that don’t result in a ticket; and any racial disparities in citations and searches, among other requirements.
The analysis by WBEZ and the Investigative Project on Race and Equity reveals significant racial disparities in each of these areas.
“This is a part of a national trend. It’s not just an Illinois phenomenon,” DePaul University College of Law Professor Manoj Mate, one of the newest members of the oversight board, told WBEZ. “There’s been a greater media focus than we’ve seen in a long time. The trends are worrisome, and the hope is that it will hopefully drive some type of policy reforms.”
Joshua Levin, an attorney with the ACLU of Illinois, said the rising disparity in the traffic stop data clearly points to a racial bias in police practices.
“There can be no dispute that there are massive racial inequalities in who police officers in our state pull over and what kind of treatment those drivers are then subjected to,” Levin said. “The Statistical Study Act has been in place for 20 years and yet we see the problem persists, in fact in many ways is worsening.
“That definitely suggests that the law could be strengthened in order to encourage local law enforcement agencies to actually address this problem,” he said.
‘Driving While Black’
Traffic stops are the most common interaction people have with police. Those stops can lead to a warning or a ticket, and sometimes an arrest. In some instances, they can turn deadly. More often they are just demoralizing and humiliating.
“I felt violated,” David Lowery Jr., CEO of the Living and Driving While Black Foundation, told WBEZ, recalling what he described as an arbitrary stop by Evergreen Park police. “That was a moment of fear. Because I didn’t know what could happen in that situation. But I felt really disrespected … as an American citizen, that these things should not be happening, just because I’m a Black American. So it was a feeling of anger, distrust.”
Lowery, whose organization has investigated racial profiling by police since 2005, says he taught his sons how to behave in a traffic stop: “Keep yourself safe. Do not get upset. Because 9 times out of 10, [it’s] something so small. You don’t want to lose your cool and your life in the process.”
In July, the ACLU of Illinois sued the Chicago Police Department, seeking to prohibit officers from targeting Black and Latino drivers for minor traffic stops as a pretext to search for contraband, such as guns or drugs.
“Take the data at face value,” Levin said. “The data shows that this is Black and Brown. [Those drivers] are not pulled over at higher rates because they’re worse drivers.”
With occasional dips and spikes, the number of overall traffic stops in Illinois has remained remarkably consistent, averaging about 2.3 million stops per year. Police stopped 2.5 million drivers in 2019, the third highest total in the two decades the state has collected the data.
That changed in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic kept many drivers off the roads and overall traffic stops dropped by 37%, to 1.6 million. The numbers have been rising ever since, topping 2 million last year.
Looking at the statewide numbers by race and ethnicity tells a far different story.
Between 2004 and 2022, stops of white drivers dropped by 44.7%, while stops of Black drivers grew by 40.6%. Stops of Latino drivers increased 26.5% in the same period.
Despite the alarming rise in traffic stops of Black drivers, and to a lesser extent Latino motorists, law enforcement agencies insist they do not target drivers of color but focus instead on reducing gun violence by seizing weapons. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, for example, said the agency focused on neighborhoods with high violent crime rates after being asked by leaders of those majority-Black areas, a spokesperson told WBEZ in a written statement.
The Sheriff’s office is “mindful of the long-standing problem of racial profiling,” the statement added, and works to address it through implicit bias training for officers, more foot and bike patrols to engage more with citizens and participation in local community events.
But critics say traffic stops of Black drivers continued to rise in Chicago after the ACLU and the Chicago Police Department settled a 2015 lawsuit that resulted in a decline in pedestrians being “stopped and frisked” by police.
“Chicago moved then from a racist strategy of stopping people on the street to an equally racist strategy” of stopping them in their cars, said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and director of the school’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project. “Telling police officers as a matter of standard procedure to stop lots and lots of people … to address violent crime has long been known by researchers to be not just an out-and-out racist tactic but one of the most unsuccessful tactics and counterproductive tactics when it comes to reducing violence.”
A mandate without a remedy
Three years after passing the traffic stop law, the Illinois General Assembly created the Racial Profiling Prevention and Data Oversight Board to help improve the collection of traffic stop data and make recommendations for reform.
It hasn’t made much progress.
The 15-person, all-volunteer board is made up of elected officials, academic experts, police officers and advocates appointed by the governor and Illinois’ four legislative leaders. Representatives from the state transportation department, the Illinois State Police and the Attorney General’s Office also sit on the panel.
The law took effect in 2008, but the oversight board got off to a slow start. In 2011, the Peoria Star Journal reported that Gov. Rod Blagojevich had failed to appoint anyone to the board and that Gov. Pat Quinn, who succeeded Blagojevich after his 2009 impeachment, also had delayed his appointments.
Over the years, the board has included many noteworthy Illinoisans who have long advocated for more equitable police practices, including Futterman; state Sen. Kwame Raoul, now Illinois attorney general; Phyllis Logan, of the Westside Branch of NAACP; and Amy Thompson, staff counsel for Impact for Equity, a reform group.
The board finally convened in 2013, held one meeting that year, three in 2014, and then stopped. Members resumed again in 2022, but all three meetings held that year lacked a quorum to pass the minutes of their previous meetings. The March 2023 meeting also lacked a quorum. Appointments to the board are still stalled; three board vacancies remain to be filled.
Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that members have held just 12 of the 63 scheduled quarterly meetings required under the law since 2008.
Futterman, appointed to the oversight board in 2012, said members were vocal about making the traffic stop study law permanent instead of extending it every three years – a request finally fulfilled in 2019.
Futterman called the traffic stop law a success because it provides “20 years of traffic stop data in Illinois – and a pretty robust set of data that wouldn’t exist, but for this law.” But he also acknowledged that the board had no power to enforce compliance or reform police practices.
“Despite laws like these, despite data collection, police in Illinois continue to stop and search Black and Brown folks at dramatically disproportionate rates than they do white folks,” he said. “So there’s a legislative mandate, at least on its face, without a remedy … beyond the power we had as a board to report and provide the data to the public.”
One traffic stop?
When the oversight board resumed its meetings in 2022, members raised questions about law enforcement agencies not complying with the law.
“Who’s policing the police?” Logan asked during a discussion about compliance at this year’s June meeting.
The most recent data, for 2022, shows that 188 law enforcement agencies – about 1 in 5 statewide – failed to submit their traffic stop data by the March 1, 2023, deadline. That’s on the heels of 2021, when 221 agencies failed to comply – by far the most since data collection began two decades ago.
“With the challenges of COVID affecting staffing at many law enforcement agencies hopefully diminishing, we are optimistic that these numbers will continue to improve,” IDOT officials told WBEZ in a written response.
IDOT confirmed that the traffic stop law did not allow the agency to impose fines or penalties on law enforcement agencies that fail to submit their traffic stop data. The department sends frequent emails to agencies, reminding them of the due dates and follows up to confirm with those that report they didn’t record any stops, the statement said.
The department also sends the names of noncompliant agencies to its Bureau of Safety Programs & Engineering, which administers federal traffic safety funds to law enforcement to reduce traffic fatalities. Noncompliant agencies can be ruled ineligible to receive these funds, IDOT said in the statement. The department did not provide a list when requested by WBEZ.
During the board’s June 15 meeting, IDOT representative Sean Berberet said some of the noncompliance comes from rural police departments that have trouble compiling the data or have merged with other departments. Other small police departments claim to have no traffic stops, he said.
But WBEZ’s analysis shows that noncompliant agencies are both small and large, from tiny university police departments to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, the state’s third largest law enforcement agency, which had no data on file for 2019. In 2018, the sheriff’s office reported no stops occurring after May 5 of that year, WBEZ’s analysis shows. And in 2021, it reported zero traffic stops in the first half of the year. Last year, the agency submitted more than 25,000 traffic stop records and was deemed compliant.
“It’s important to the Sheriff’s Office to be in compliance with state law,” said Matthew Walberg, director of communications for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. “So, when we noticed there was an issue with the transfer of data to IDOT, we addressed it and made sure to send in the data even though it was late.”After years of complying with the law and submitting records of thousands of traffic stops annually, west suburban La Grange failed to submit any data for 2021. The police department submitted just one traffic stop to IDOT for 2022. Law enforcement agencies are considered compliant if they submit at least one record.
La Grange Village Manager Jack Knight said the police department collected the data, but it never made it to the state because of a computer glitch. “As soon as we were made aware of it, obviously, we took steps to remedy it,” he explained.
Similarly, La Grange officials did not have a detailed explanation for racial disparities found in their historical traffic stop data.
For example, the village’s adult population is 4% Black, but in 2019, Black drivers accounted for 12% of the town’s traffic stops.
“That’s not something that we’re aware of, nor do we really spend much time analyzing,” Knight said.
Police Chief Timothy Griffin, who has been on the job since August after serving more than two decades with the Mount Prospect Police Department, said the village would ensure that the state receives a full accounting of its traffic stops.
“I can tell you that our officers try to stop based on the violations that they see,” he said. “And if that happened to be the way the numbers came out, that happens to be the way the numbers came out.”
A question of trust
What eventually became the 2003 traffic stops legislation was a lot tougher when it started.
Earlier bills prohibited traffic stops as a pretext for investigating other crimes, required police departments to address findings of racial bias through counseling and training, and authorized the governor to withhold state funds from agencies that failed to comply.
Those provisions did not make it into the final version of Obama’s legislation, in part because of objections from law enforcement agencies. But the issues of enforcement and reform have never gone away. In fact, they were in full view three years before the traffic stop law passed, in north suburban Highland Park.
In late 1999, a group of Highland Park police officers filed a federal lawsuit – supported by affidavits from 12 current and former police officers – alleging that they were directed to stop Latino drivers wearing “big cowboy hats,” target Jewish people on religious holidays, and keep Black people out of the business district.“Looking for (Blacks), Mexicans or other minorities was called ‘fishing’ or ‘hunting’ throughout the Police Department,” Officer Pierino DeRose said in one affidavit.
On July 12, 2000, the city signed a consent decree and agreed to carry out 11 anti-profiling initiatives – including a requirement to collect data on all traffic stops.
That same year, Rev. Donald Harwell, pastor of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Glencoe and an active critic of Highland Park’s policing, gave a rather prophetic interview to WBEZ.
“We all are aware of the really systemic problem that we have in America,” said Harwell, who died in 2011. “And it’s simply typified in Highland Park. And it is particularly troublesome when we find a community such as Highland Park, where they claim to be an open community, a diverse community but we have a problem of this sort.
“If it happens in Highland Park, how much worse must it be every place else?”
Two decades later, members of IDOT’s oversight board are still trying to answer that question, debating ways to enforce compliance and hold police departments accountable for patterns of racial bias – the very same requirements contained in the earlier legislation. Critics say that restoring those provisions could make the difference between collecting data on racial disparities and actually doing something about them.
But it won’t be easy, said Mate, one of the board’s newest members. True reform has to build trust “based on whether or not individuals and communities believe they’re being treated fairly under the law … and with respect,” he said.
“How does that translate to actual results?” Mate asked. “This is the hardest question, because ultimately systemic change, I think, is extremely difficult.”
That is certainly the case in Highland Park, where Black drivers continue to be pulled over by police in numbers beyond their share of the population. The city’s adult population is 1.4% Black, but in 2022 Black drivers accounted for 14% of all traffic stops.
Leslie Hurtado, Ola Giwa and Michael Liptrot contributed to this story.