Urbana’s city council confronts race issues

By Susan Kantor

When Aaron Ammons was pulled over while driving to Springfield in what he described as a fairly nice car, he was angry. He said that police gave him little reason for the stop, and he felt he was treated unfairly. Taking the floor at Monday’s Urbana City Council meeting, Ammons called for reforms to stop police from profiling based on color.

“We have to stand strong and say that we are not going to accept policies that are discriminatory, that are racist in their essence, and that destroy our community,” Ammons said in an interview.

The issue of racial profiling was highlighted at Monday’s meeting after the Illinois Department of Transportation released a report comparing the percentage of minority traffic stops to the percentage of minorities in the total population of Urbana. The report documented a decrease from 1.47 to 1.44 stops per person in Urbana during the last year.

According to the 2000 census, blacks represent about 14% of the population in Urbana. However, IDOT reported that blacks comprise 33% of all traffic stops in the city. Asians also represent about 14 percent of the population in Urbana, but only account for 8 percent of the traffic stops.

Chief of Police Mike Bily explained aspects of the IDOT report and Urbana’s plans to work against racial profiling. He said racial profiling is not in line with Urbana’s current policy, and it will not be tolerated. Officers will undergo customer service diversity training to deter racial profiling, he said. Urbana has also invested in better video equipment for traffic stops.

Ammons, who represented the group Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, spoke to the council about the police department’s traffic stop policies. Ammons said he believes that the issue of racial profiling stems from the policies created by the war on drugs.

“The drug war is technically supposed to mean that there are less drugs on the street and less opportunity for using and selling,” he said. “But in essence it’s a war on poor people, which primarily are African-American and people of color in America.”

Additionally, Ammons said he believes that the penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs need to be reduced. These reforms would take pressure off overcrowded jails, which have large minority populations, he said.

Councilwoman Danielle Chynoweth, D-Ward 2, made several suggestions to Bily about how to curb tendencies of certain officers to racially profile during traffic stops. She also suggested that the city holds a listening session for people who have been victims of racial profiling.