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Data Reveals Driving as a Person of Color in Illinois Leads to More Unjustified Searches

Chicago police making a traffic stop
Chicago police making a traffic stop
Rachel Murphy,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU of Illinois
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January 25, 2019

In January 2016, Richard Jackson, a Black man, was driving to his home on Chicago’s West Side when he noticed a car trailing him. As he turned into the alley leading to his driveway, the unmarked police car pulled him over and four officers leapt out, demanding that he lower all four of his car’s windows. Jackson’s grandparents, who live with him, watched from their home’s window in fear.

After running his license, one officer told Jackson he would be let go with a warning. But when Jackson asked why he had been stopped, the officer’s tone changed. In response, the officer angrily asked if Jackson wanted to “tell it to a judge” then lied and said that Jackson had cut off the police car and run a stop sign.

The officer issued Jackson two citations, but Jackson fought the tickets and they were ultimately dismissed. Jackson filed a racial profiling complaint, only to have his case closed once his tickets were dismissed — meaning that no one ever investigated the officers’ conduct that day.

This upsetting experience wasn’t a first for Jackson. Like many other Black and Latinx drivers, he has faced numerous unfounded traffic stops in the past. These repeated stops are more than just upsetting; they further damage police relationships with the communities they are sworn to protect and serve.

Now, a new report from the ACLU of Illinois confirms what many drivers in Illinois like Jackson have long known from firsthand experience: Racial disparities exist in traffic stops. Black and Latinx drivers are stopped and subjected to discretionary searches at higher rates than white drivers across the state, even though these searches are less likely to result in contraband being found than searches of white drivers.

Using data state and local law enforcement are required to report to the Illinois Department of Transportation, the ACLU of Illinois found that from 2015 to 2017, Black and Latinx drivers were asked to consent to a search about 1.7 and 1.3 times more often, respectively, than white drivers throughout the state. Yet, when officers performed consent searches, white drivers were found with contraband about 1.3 times more often than both Black and Latinx drivers.

In 2017, some law enforcement agencies grossly exceeded these averages — asking Black and Latinx drivers to consent to searches up to 9 and 11 times more often than white drivers. Again, these disparities can’t be justified by higher rates of finding contraband. This information is available on an interactive website that was created by a group of independent data scientists and engineers, which allows the public to visualize and explore the data for each Illinois law enforcement agency that reported traffic stop data in 2017.

Consent searches raise serious civil liberties concerns because officers can seek consent without having a legal justification for the search and the circumstances in which they seek consent — usually on a roadside, in an isolated, one-on-one encounter where the officer has already ordered the person where to sit or stand — are inherently coercive. It’s all in the hands of the cops, making abuses of the law inevitable. Seeing disparities in these kinds of discretionary searches suggests that officers are using race and ethnicity instead of legitimate law enforcement considerations when making the decision to request a search.

The data also revealed a troubling trend in the city of Chicago during this three-year period. Traffic stops in Chicago more than tripled from 2015 to 2017, with Black drivers accounting for the majority of this increase. This type of targeted harassment of people of color is in line with the well-documented, nationwide “driving while black” (or walking or biking) phenomenon. For people of color like Jackson, repeatedly being stopped and searched for little or no reason — and being subjected to this treatment more than white people — erodes any trust and legitimacy that the police may have.

Transparency is the first step toward important police accountability and reform, but the state law that requires this data collection is set to expire this July. Illinois lawmakers must make this law permanent, and law enforcement agencies must commit to using data to evaluate their practices. Racial profiling is a scourge that can only be stopped if law enforcement agencies collect and share reliable data on stops and searches and alter their policies and practices accordingly. Ending this data collection will damage transparency and accountability, and it will ensure that bias-driven policing will continue to violate the rights of people of color.

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