A 2000 report from the U.S. Department of Justice defines racial profiling as “police-initiated action that relies on the race, ethnicity or national origin rather than the behavior of an individual or information that leads the police to a particular individual who has been identified as being, or having been, engaged in criminal activity.”
The report goes on to say: “There is almost uniform consensus on two corollary principles that follow from adopting this definition of racial profiling: Police may not use racial or ethnic stereotypes as factors in selecting whom to stop-and-search; and police may use race or ethnicity to determine whether a person matches specific description of a particular suspect.”
The idea being that police can use race in a description of a person of interest connected to a crime. Such as: A white male age 28 to 34 was seen fleeing the scene in a red sweatshirt. Or: The suspect is a Hispanic female aged 40 to 45 last seen driving a blue sedan. However, police cannot look at the color of somebody’s skin or the country he or she originates from and make assumptions that he or she is more or less likely to commit a crime.
Ronald Davis, chief of police for East Palo Alto, Calif., summed it up best when he recently testified before a U.S. Senate committee. “Race is a descriptor, not a predictor.”
But racial profiling can be difficult to nail down. Anecdotal evidence is compelling, but sometimes individual stories can be chalked up to misunderstandings or a few bad actors. “Because of the discretionary nature of most traffic stops, racial profiling is a subtle form of discrimination that is difficult to document in any particular incident. It is an act that offers its perpetrators plausible ‘deniability.’ It is easy to cover up by suggesting that any particular act was just coincidentally linked to race,” Cedric Herring, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, wrote in a paper published by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
An Illinois law that went into effect in 2004 required all law enforcement entities in the state to collect information about each traffic stop. Officers are required to record the names, addresses, gender and perceived race of the motorists they stop. They must also record the reason for stopping each motorist, as well as the place and time of the stop and information about the vehicle. Police must note whether they conducted a search, and if so, whether the motorist gave permission. In 2006, the act was extended and expanded to include more data from searches, such as whether anything illegal was found. In 2009, the law was extended until 2015.
Such data is key to illustrating that there is a problem that needs to be addressed, and year after year, the data and the news articles written about it often tell the same story.
According to the 2011 study of traffic stops from the Illinois Department of Transportation, minority drivers accounted for 12 percent more of the total stops in 2011 than would be expected based on the estimated number of minority drivers. The study found that 65 percent of Hispanic drivers and 62 percent of black drivers who were stopped received tickets, compared with 55 percent of white drivers. Police were more likely to ask minority drivers to consent to vehicle searches. However, white drivers who consented to searches were more likely to have illegal items. Of the white drivers who agreed to searches, 25 percent had something illegal. That compares with 19 percent of black drivers who consented to searches and 13 percent of Hispanic drivers.
The statistics allow local news outlets to take a look at what is going on in their area. A 2010 story from the Illinois Times reported that minority drivers had more than twice the chance of being pulled over in Springfield in 2009. The story says that 2009 was the fifth year in a row that the stats showed that minorities in Springfield are more likely to face a traffic stop. Police also searched minority drivers more often. Searches were performed on 5.4 percent of all cases when a minority was stopped and 2.3 percent of all stops involving Caucasian drivers. Yet, a higher percentage of the white drivers who were searched were found to have illegal contraband, such as drugs or weapons.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a complaint last year with the U.S. Justice Department over the Illinois State Police’s record on consent stops. A consent search occurs when an officer obtains a driver’s permission to search the vehicle, as opposed to the officer searching the vehicle because he or she has a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. After looking over reporting data, the ACLU of Illinois found that between 2004 until 2010, Hispanic drivers were 2.7 to 4.0 times more likely to be subjected to a consent search than white drivers, and African-American drivers were 1.8 to 3.2 times more likely to be subjected to a consent search than white drivers.
“It’s a hunch search,” says Ed Yohnka, communications and public policy director for the ACLU of Illinois. “What we see, unfortunately, is that more often than not, they have more hunches about people of color.”
Arguments have been made that minority drivers are just more likely to consent to searches, but the data shows that almost all drivers — more than 95 percent — allow police to search their vehicles when asked.
Yohnka said that the ACLU is still waiting for a response from the Justice Department. He said it is not unusual for responses from the department to take awhile. “In the meantime, the governor could fix this problem tomorrow simply by banning consent searches.” Yohnka said that such a ban would not block officers from searching a vehicle if they have a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. “If there are reasons for a law enforcement official to do a search, they can do a search.”
But Gov. Pat Quinn seems to be in no hurry to address the issue. He only recently appointed members to a panel to assess the data and make recommendations to the legislature. He made the appointments after public criticism over the board’s inability to meet because of a lack of members. Still, the Racial Profiling Prevention and Data Oversight Board has yet to meet. It has been six years since the legislature approved the creation of the board.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” Yohnka says. “That board under the legislation was really put in place to look at the data really closely year to year.” He says that the board, if it were to meet, could focus on the data and make suggestions on how the state could improve. Yohnka says that the group could also focus on the positive by looking at the best practices of police forces in the state and across the country that are addressing racial profiling. He says one of the key ways to tackle the issue is through training for officers that focuses on teaching instead of finger-pointing. “There are really important things that these officials are often able to do, and they are able to do it in effective way that’s not intrusive.”
Of course, racial profiling is not just a problem in Illinois. Recently, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held its first hearing on racial profiling in more than a decade.
“The overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers perform their jobs admirably, honestly and courageously. They put their lives on the line to protect us every single day. But the inappropriate actions of a few who engage in racial profiling create mistrust and suspicion that hurt all police officers,” U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin said at the hearing. “Racial profiling undermines the rule of law and strikes at the core of our nation’s commitment to equal protection for all.”
Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said that when the committee had its last hearing on racial profiling in 2001, “there was bipartisan agreement about the need to end racial profiling.” But he said the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, changed the conversation. “In the national trauma that followed, civil liberties came face to face with national security.”
He said recent events — such as the death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, who was shot while walking home from a convenience store in Florida by a member of a neighborhood watch organization — have thrust the issue back into the spotlight.
“The senseless death of this innocent young man has been a wakeup call to America. And so, 11 years after the last Senate hearing on racial profiling, we return to the basic question: What can we do to end racial profiling in America?” Durbin asked.
The End Racial Profiling Act, which Durbin sponsored, would place a federal ban on any law enforcement entity using race, religion, ethnicity or national origin to profile. It would require officers to undergo training on racial profiling. The act would allow the U.S. attorney general to withhold federal funding from states that do not comply. The legislation also would require nationwide data collection, much like what is currently done in Illinois.
In testimony submitted to the committee, the ACLU of Illinois called the law enabling data collection in the state ‘arguably the best statute of its kind in the nation.’
“The data collection is important because it points to a systemic problem, but it is only the first step,” Yohnka says. Illinois was a leader in taking that first step. But it means little if officials do not lift the other foot and begin walking toward solutions for a problem that the data show is real.
Illinois Issues, September 2012