Minorities targeted in traffic violations

By The Associated Press

CHICAGO – Every time Shannon Bennett gets behind the wheel, he worries about what will happen.

The 34-year-old black man from Chicago’s south side says he is pulled over at least four or five times a year. He’s even been handcuffed and taken to the police station for allegedly rolling through a stop sign.

The hardest part, he says, is the fear of what might happen in an encounter with police.

“When you drive and you’re black, you know you can be stopped for any reason. That fear is always there,” Bennett said. “It happens so often, you don’t know what to think or what to question.”

An Associated Press analysis of nearly 2.5 million traffic stops in Illinois in 2005 reveals racial disparities that suggest minorities could have legitimate reasons to worry.

The analysis found:

-Minorities were more likely than whites to receive tickets from traffic stops. Police ticketed whites in 60 percent of stops, blacks in 67 percent and Hispanics in 71 percent. The differences persisted no matter why the drivers were pulled over.

-More than half of the 970 police agencies in Illinois reported pulling over minorities in greater proportions than census estimates of the local minority driving population.

-Minority drivers and their vehicles were much more likely to be searched. Police searched Hispanics in 17 percent of stops, blacks in 15 percent and whites in just 6 percent. The difference was even more pronounced for searches where police had to get the driver’s consent, raising the possibility that minorities were asked for permission more than white drivers.

-Minorities were most often pulled over at night, while whites were most often stopped in the afternoon.

-Drivers of all races were most often pulled over for moving violations, but minorities were more likely to be stopped for license/registration and equipment problems than whites.

Police insist too many factors affect the statistics to see them as evidence of racial profiling. But minority advocates contend the numbers prove what they’ve complained about for years.

Experts say that, at the very least, they raise questions about police practices that need to be examined further.

“This is exactly what these studies are intended to do,” said Amy Farrell, a researcher at the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. “You don’t look at this data and say racial profiling is rampant in Illinois. What I think it does mean is that there are red flags raised that you want to understand.”

State lawmakers in 2003 required the annual study of traffic stops after years of debate, with the goal of examining complaints that police target minorities in stops simply because of race.

Rather then settling the issue, the results continued the long back-and-forth between police and minority advocates.

Rep. Monique Davis, a black Chicago Democrat who pushed for the study, says the results prove to her that racial profiling is a problem, although she acknowledges it’s not as pervasive as it once was.

“It is exactly the kind of documentation that was needed,” Davis said. “We’re encouraged by the report because we know we need to continue the study.”

The state is creating a commission to help analyze the results of the traffic study and determine what should be done next, and state officials extended the initial three-year study by another 2 1/2 years to allow more time for the commission to do its work.