Traffic stop school

Miki Johnson

More than 150 high-ranking police officers attended a one-day workshop at Northwestern on Monday to discuss the analysis of data all Illinois police are now required to collect on the racial and ethnic background of people they stop for traffic violations.

Partially in response to recent concerns about racial profiling in Illinois and across the country, Illinois passed the Traffic Stop Statistics Act last year, which will require police officers for the next four years to fill out an extended “stop sheet” that includes questions about the race and gender of any person stopped for a traffic violation.

This information is sent to the Illinois Department of Transportation, which in turn hands the data over to NU’s Center for Public Safety for analysis. The center was chosen because it had “taken a fairly high-profile leadership role” in dealing with racial profiling, said Alex Weiss, its director. The NUCPS has convened three national symposia on racial profiling and was engaged to assist with a 2000 suit alleging racial profiling by the Highland Park Police Department.

Monday’s workshop attempted to clarify data collection and analysis procedures and to assuage some fears law enforcement agencies have voiced about the law, Weiss said.

“To have (the workshop) and finally see how everything is going to be analyzed was something that was very helpful to the agencies,” said Carl Fever, a Bloomington Police Department criminal data analyst who attended the workshop.

Rough Start

Although racial profiling has been a particularly hot-button topic since complaints of mistreatment by U.S. citizens and visitors of Arab and Muslim descent following Sept. 11, Illinois’ run-ins with the issue began even before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The Mount Prospect Police Department had already implemented a program similar to the state’s after being accused in 2000 of targeting Hispanics for traffic stops.

A lawsuit also was brought in 2000 against the Highland Park Police Department by two black residents who said they had been repeatedly stopped and harassed by local police officers. Since then the Highland Park force has been complying with an order from the Department of Justice to record the races of drivers they pull over.

Following an independent investigation, Special Counsel Thomas P. Sullivan found racial profiling was not a department policy.

“In the case of Highland Park, it made people more aware of the problem,” Weiss said. “It convinced people that you could collect data, that systems were in place … and that this kind of approach could be positive.”

With the implementation of the new law this year, the data collection started in these communities will be extended to every law enforcement agency in Illinois. The approximately 1,050 agencies reporting include city police, state police, university police and county sheriff’s departments, Weiss said.

While the Traffic Stop Statistics Act has been applauded by the American Civil Liberties Union as a step toward combatting unfair police targeting of minorities, many law enforcement agencies have opposed it.

“It’s a very sensitive topic for law agencies,” Fever said. “To have it rammed down our throats was a little disconcerting.”

For starters the stop sheet format wasn’t finalized until late December, with data collection scheduled to start Jan. 1, Fever said. Other agencies fear filling out the extra parts of the stop sheet will leave officers less time to make stops. Weiss said he thinks that compiling and coding the information will be the more time-consuming aspect of the program.

But Robert Specht, the administrative division commander for the Schaumburg Police Department, said he hasn’t yet seen any resistance to data collection.

“We are looking forward to working with Northwestern University,” Specht said. “We feel very confident that this will be a solid study for us.”

The Traffic Stop Statistics Act’s data collection system also has drawn criticism from Arab and Muslim communities for possibly underrepresenting the number of times their members are stopped.

Because the Illinois stop sheet does not include a category for people of Arab or Muslim descent, officers must use their own discretion to place them in one of the following categories: African/American, Caucasian, Hispanic, Native American/Alaskan and Asian/Pacific Islander.

The Bloomington Police Department dealt with this problem by adding a “Middle Eastern” box to its stop sheet. “We felt it was very important to do that,” Fever said. “We have a large Arab community here and to ignore them is kind of mind-boggling to me.”

Pulling it all Together

Law enforcement agencies began collecting stop sheet data Jan. 1 of this year, and although their findings are not due to NUCPS until March 15, 2005, Weiss said he is pleased to see that more than 900 agencies have already turned them in.

“It would be terrifying if they were all sent in March 15,” said Weiss, who hopes to receive the majority of the data by the end of the year.

The NUCPS will have until July 1, 2005, to give its results to the Department of Transportation, but Weiss said once the analysis system is in place it will be easier to deal with data as it comes in.

Officers will continue to collect data at least through 2007, and the center will produce a report for the department July 1 of each year through 2008.

Review Session

Weiss said he hoped Monday’s workshop had clarified the more complicated parts of the study and addressed some agencies’ fears.

“The police community has challenged the law for years,” Weiss said. “But most of them are very practical if you just explain it to them.”

Much apprehension surrounding the Illinois law has arisen from the idea of “benchmarks,” or established percentages of “acceptable” stops for a given minority group.

“If one concludes that 25 percent of stops are for Hispanics, the question is what do you use as your basis for comparison,” Weiss said.

Comparing race statistics from the census and information from the stop sheets is problematic because “Hispanic” was not a choice on the 2000 census, according to information distributed at the workshop. To address this disparity, the center will use a cross analysis that considers a separate question asking respondents if they are of “Hispanic origin.”

Agencies also have complained that census figures for the stationary population of a community do not coincide with the actual racial makeup of drivers on the community’s road.

To better estimate the actual “demographic profile of a driver in a given jurisdiction,” the center will use “adjusted census” data, which takes into account factors such as driving time to work and food sales.

Agencies also can opt to perform extra surveys that record the “actual” racial demographic of drivers by taking road-side observations. The Schaumburg Police Department will begin such a survey in August.

“This will give us a more realistic view of the public we are actually dealing with,” Specht said.

The center also assured officers at the workshop that it would not employ a “pass, fail” grading system for agencies.

“It is important to understand that there is nothing in these data systems that will tell you whether or not people are engaged in racial profiling,” Weiss said. “We can’t get in an officer’s head, so at the end of the day the explanation of those disparities will fall back on them, the police.”

Managing Editor Miki Johnson is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected]