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13 INVESTIGATES: Traffic stop study to track racial profiling may miss the mark

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Police across Illinois must document the race of every person they pull over per state law.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: We took a look at the traffic stop study specifically in the Stateline

ROCKFORD (WREX) — Police reform has been a major topic in Illinois. Lawmakers recently passed sweeping changes that they say will level the playing field. But for nearly two decades, a law has already been in place to track racial profiling. As 13 Investigates found out, not only is that data not enforced, some law enforcement question its accuracy.

"This job means everything to me and my family," said Ryan Beery, an officer with the Rochelle Police Department.

Beery said police work is his calling, and traffic stops are just part of the job.

"I'm not a big just hammer every person with a ticket. I think you can get more out of just talking to people," he said. "If I pull over people I don't care what color they are that's driving the vehicle. It's what infraction did they commit?"

But the state does care what race he's pulling over. It's why Beery and every other officer in the state have to document it.

That information is for the state's annual traffic and pedestrian stop study.
Every time an officer pulls someone over, they have to fill out what happened during the stop. Was the vehicle searched? Was the person ticketed? Researchers compare those stops to the driving population in a community to see if minorities, like black drivers, are pulled over, ticketed, and searched at a higher rate than white drivers.

The whole purpose is to make sure police departments aren't showing racial bias.

"I do believe in the study. I believed in it in 2004 and I still believe in it because I do think it holds you accountable," said Roscoe Police Chief Jamie Evans.

Evan says implicit bias exists everywhere, and keeping track of who officers pull over can help address that. But if a department is pulling over minorities at a higher rate than white drivers, it doesn't face any repercussions.

Nearly a decade ago, the state created a Racial Profiling Prevention And Data Oversight Board to try and change that. It was supposed to help departments with high rates find ways to improve their numbers.

One of the members of that board was Rep. Will Davis of Hazel Crest. But when 13 Investigates asked Davis about it, he said, "I forgot that I was even appointed to that particular group."

Rep. Davis went on to tell 13 Investigates the group never met.

"There needs to be teeth to these boards, these task force before our community, before Illinoisans' feel these are just ways to shut us up," said Rep. Maurice West of Rockford.

West said he doesn't fault Davis for forgetting he was part of the board, because Davis was not in charge of the board or when it should meet.

A few months after we interviewed Davis and West, a new task force was formed to do what the original Racial Profiling Prevention And Data Oversight Board never did: find solutions to help police departments improve their numbers.

"We have definitely seen racial disparities as a consistent trend with the data for many years," said Rachel Murphy, an attorney with the ACLU who is part of the new task group, now called the Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Data Use and Collection Task Force.

Some of those racial disparities are seen in our area. For example, Freeport Police pulled over Black drivers at a higher rate than white drivers, two to one. The Black drivers were also ticketed more often, and searched more often, but they were less likely than the white drivers to have illegal drugs or weapons.

Winnebago and Ogle counties and Rockford also searched Black drivers at a higher rate but found less contraband compared to white drivers.

Belvidere pulled over Black drivers at a rate of more than seven to one. Twenty-three percent of Black drivers were searched compared to just over seven percent of white drivers, and Black drivers were still less likely to have contraband.

But some departments question the data, including Rochelle and Roscoe.

Rochelle had the highest rate in the Stateline of Black drivers pulled over compared to white: eleven to one. But Beery says the formula, which only uses an area's driving population, is stacked against it.

"It's not just the population of Rochelle. We have so many people that travel through here," said Beery, as he drove through one of the city's many truck stops, showing the dozens of out-of-town drivers who don't get counted in the population.

Evans' department had one of the best rates in the Stateline of Black drivers pulled over compared to white at .63 to one. But even she takes issue with the study after it showed her department pulled over American Indians/Alaskan Natives at a rate of 37 to one.

"I couldn't even believe it and so I pulled the numbers electronically and I went through the tickets by hand and I couldn't find a single one. A single traffic stop where we've stopped anybody in that classification,' she said.

Both Evans and Beery say they would like lawmakers and the people behind the study to communicate more with officers about their numbers so they can work together to ensure racial profiling isn't happening.

For Beery, he said whether there are changes with the study or not, his goal to protect and serve his community will stay the same.

"I have no control over what goes on in other agencies, other states. What I can do is make a difference here while I'm on shift the best that I can," he said.

The next Illinois Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Study is set to come out July 1.

Kristin Crowley

Evening News Anchor
Kristin Crowley anchors the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. news. She is also a reporter for 13 Investigates. She brings more than a decade of experience to the newsroom. Her work at WREX has earned her multiple awards including a regional Edward R. Murrow for Investigative Journalism and three regional Emmys.

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