ACLU Reports Consensual Police Search Disparities
By Jeremy Gorner and Matthew Walberg, Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — Police across Illinois have made little progress combating racial profiling, searching the cars of black and Latino drivers far more often than those of whites. At the same time, a decade of studying routine traffic stops shows that officers find drugs and other contraband more frequently in vehicles driven by whites, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
The study, based on data collected by law enforcement, prompted the ACLU to renew a long-standing call to end consensual vehicle searches, saying that police agencies across the state had failed to deal effectively with the problem of racially biased searches.
What’s more, the ACLU said, officers were more often than not coming up empty-handed during these consensual vehicle searches.
“What that says to us is that this tool is broken and police officers should be barred by statute in Illinois or by individual police chiefs or city councils (from conducting consensual searches),” said Adam Schwartz, a staff attorney for the ACLU. “Police should not be saying to somebody, ‘Can I search your car?'”
The findings in the report point to a troubling pattern of alleged bias by police departments ten years after the legislature required all law enforcement agencies to keep data on every traffic stop as part of an effort to gauge the prevalence of racial profiling and to prevent it.
Officials from some of the law enforcement agencies named in the report took issue with the findings, saying their officers do not engage in racial profiling. After Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy became the city’s top cop in 2011, the department instituted mandatory training for all officers focusing on how they interact with the community, said department spokesman Marty Maloney.
“This is all designed to enhance our communication with residents about our processes while they are happening and build better relationships within the communities that they serve,” said Maloney, adding that the department had not seen the ACLU report.
Illinois State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said the agency has taken steps to bolster the accountability, training and “cultural awareness” of its troopers.
“Illinois State Police officers are specifically trained to have reasonable suspicion to request consent searches to prevent illegal drugs, shootings and other criminal activity that continues to invade every interstate, roadway, suburb and county within the state of Illinois and beyond,” Bond said.
The report shows that consent searches make up a small percentage of the thousands of traffic stops made by law enforcement.
Still, the report suggests the problem is pervasive and stubborn.
In Chicago, black and Latino motorists were more than four times more likely to have their vehicles searched during traffic stops last year than white motorists, even though officers found contraband in the vehicles of twice as many white drivers, according to the report. In 2007, by comparison, black and Latino motorists were nearly three times more likely to be searched than white motorists.
In area’s patrolled by the State Police, Latino motorists were about two times more likely than white motorists to consent to a search in 2013, compared with nearly three times more in 2004. The rate remained relatively flat for blacks, who were nearly twice more likely to get searched than whites. At the same time, white drivers were two times more likely than Latinos to have contraband, while whites were slightly more likely to have contraband than blacks last year, according to the report.
Statewide, the report shows that black and Latino drivers last year were nearly twice as likely as white drivers to have their cars searched during a traffic stop. Yet white motorists are 49 percent more likely than black motorists to have contraband found during a search, and 56 percent more likely when compared with Latinos, according to the report.
Racial disparities in consent searches also were found among law enforcement agencies in Aurora, Springfield, Rockford and Lake County.
Police in Aurora, the second-largest city in Illinois, were more than twice as likely to search the vehicles of black drivers, and more than 60 percent more likely to search the cars of Latino drivers than they were to search white motorists’ vehicles, according to the ACLU.
Last year, Aurora conducted 1,157 consent searches, trailing only the Illinois State Police and the Chicago Police Department. The study found those searches uncovered illicit materials in the possession of white drivers 30 percent more often than with blacks, and 46 percent more often than with Latinos.
Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas could not be reached for comment.
In Lake County, the sheriff’s department searched the vehicles of Latino drivers twice as often as they did whites, even though white motorists were 40 percent more likely to be found in possession of illegal items.
Lake County Undersheriff Ray Rose said he believed his officers stop cars without regard to race and seek consent to search when the situation dictates.
“If all of these searches were being made at 11 in the morning, I might share some of the ACLU’s concerns,” said Rose. “But if they’re happening at 3 a.m. in an industrial area behind an abandoned factory, that paints a whole different picture, a whole different set of circumstances.”
Rose also took issue with the ACLU’s belief that motorists are so intimidated by police that they are reluctant to refuse a search.
The report also identified racial profiling by police in their use of drug-sniffing dogs across the state. Black motorists in 2013 were 55 percent more likely than white motorists to be subjected to having a dog sniff their car, yet white motorists were 14 percent more likely than black motorists to be found with contraband during police searches aided by dogs, the report shows.
State Police, for example, were more than twice as likely to conduct sniff searches on Latino motorists, while white motorists were 64 percent more likely than Latino motorists to get caught by dogs with contraband, the report shows.
What’s more, no contraband was found during half of all State Police searches aided by dogs in 2013 “because ISP dogs were wrong as often as they were right,” according to the report.
The ACLU report drew from data kept by the Illinois Department of Transportation, which reflected reporting from police departments statewide under the Illinois Traffic Stop Statistical Study Act. The measure was sponsored by then-state Senator Barack Obama and adopted by the General Assembly in 2003. The law originally called for a four-year statewide study of traffic stops to identify racial profiling but has since been extended through 2019.
Schwartz of the ACLU said the data show that police officers have a higher threshold of suspicion before seeking to search white drivers than they do black and Latino drivers.
“And we believe that that is unfair,” he said. “And we believe this practice is not necessary for the police to keep our communities safe.”
Rose said the report is merely another ploy for the ACLU to push for the elimination of consensual searches.
“I was on the governor’s committee to craft the law on racial profiling, and going all the way back to that time, the ACLU has been trying to have consent searches and dog search outlawed,” he said.
“So these numbers that they pull out of this whole report are an attempt by them again to support that these searches be made illegal.”‘
Photo: David D’Agastino via Flickr