State-wide study prompts Urbana to establish task force

By Eli Murray

For more than 50 years, Martel Miller has lived in Champaign. Growing up, he said he was subjected to police discrimination, and he’s not the only one.

“When I was growing up, if I left Park Street, before I got to Green Street, I was stopped by the police for no reason at all. All I did was cross a few streets,” he said. 

Following the release of the 2012 IDOT Traffic Stop Study, Champaign-Urbana residents, including Miller, have raised concerns about police discrimination and racial bias at Urbana City Council meetings. 

According to the report, minorities in the area have a higher chance of being stopped by police. To reach this conclusion, the report uses the ratio of the percentage of stops enacted on minorities to the estimated percentage of the minority driving population. If the resulting quotient is greater than one, that means that minorities are being stopped more frequently than the estimated percentage of the minority driving population would suggest.

The Champaign, Urbana and University police departments had quotients of 1.30, 1.07 and 1.70 in 2012, respectively. The quotient for the majority of reporting agencies in Illinois fell between 1.01 and 1.25.

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“A (quotient) of one is the goal, because then each racial driving group would experience being stopped at the same percentage that they are of the driving public,” said Durl Kruse, a member of Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice.

Illinois began recording the race of drivers stopped by police in 2004 in an effort to make police procedures more transparent. Since then, area residents have been pressuring the local police departments to address the issue.

Over the course of nine years, the state has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of traffic stops, from more than 2.4 million in 2004 to just over 2.1 million in 2012, according to the 2012 Illinois Traffic Stop Summary. The majority of the 2012 stops were for moving violations.

The majority of stops are enacted on white drivers, who make up 66 percent of all traffic stops in Illinois. The African-American and Hispanic populations are the second and third most stopped populations, accounting for 19 percent and 12 percent of traffic stops, respectively.

Community input

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said she wasn’t convinced that the IDOT data was conclusive. She said the quotient was simply a tool but not necessarily an accurate gauge of discrimination.

“If you got a new thermometer and the first time you used it, it said, ‘105’ but you felt fine, would you run off to the hospital?” she asked.

Charlie Smyth, Ward 1, mirrored the mayor’s sentiment at Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting.

“People are convinced already without having a formal experiment to base it on,” he said. “No one has done an extensive, categorical data analysis with controlling for a number of factors on this data. … It’s all two-way tables.”

Smyth said comparing census data on the estimated driving population to traffic stops was not the same as looking at the actual driving population in Urbana because the census data doesn’t take into account that people who drive in Urbana may not live in Urbana.

Urbana Chief of Police Patrick Connolly said the numbers from the traffic stop study aren’t entirely accurate. He said there were clerical errors in the data entry from the police department.

“We need to correct the old information and make sure it’s accurately documented and entered,” he said.

For example, he said the data on K-9 sniffs included a duplicate report and didn’t take into account when officers found “shake” — a term describing small particles of marijuana — and simply wrote the driver a ticket instead of taking the shake in as evidence.

Once corrected, Connolly said the data shows a different picture. Rather than the reported five contraband finds out of 29 dog sniff searches, the Urbana Police Department found 24 instances of contraband out of 28 searches.

“Those numbers can clearly be fixed for 2013 and for the future,” he said.

He also said that the data lacks context.

“In 2012, there were a series of shootings in the Champaign-Urbana area. … Six people were shot in a three-day period,” he said. 

These shootings prompted police to increase patrols in the affected neighborhoods, which happened to be predominantly African-American communities.

“If we can concisely capture that type of activity, it’s going to help at least explain some of the spikes with respect to why the police are enforcing the laws in certain areas.”

Carol Ammons, Ward 3, objected to discussions focusing exclusively on the IDOT data.

“For this particular topic … the comments almost completely disregard the experience of the African community,” she said. “My spirit is disturbed because the response is ‘this can’t be as serious as you guys are saying it is.’ … The mayor has done what she can to usurp this process behind the scenes, and I am so disappointed in that.”

Civilian Review Board

Connolly encouraged community members with grievances to bring them forward to the Civilian Review Board, adding that he was personally willing to meet with community members to discuss issues. He also invited community members to participate in police ride-alongs.

Prussing said only a few citizens had stepped forth and filed complaints with the Citizen Review Board in 2012.

Patricia Avery, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Champaign branch, said people might not report complaints to the Citizen Review Board because it can be intimidating.

She said as head of Champaign’s NAACP branch, she heard many complaints from community members. It’s simply a matter of people reporting to agencies that they feel are going to listen to them, she said.

“I personally didn’t understand if someone felt that their rights had been violated … wouldn’t you just file a complaint?” she said. “I went to the University to pick up a complaint form … and I was treated in such a way that I began to understand.”

She said she felt intimidated by the staff, who forced her to meet with a curt sergeant before she was able to pick up a complaint form. On the way out, she said she was followed out of the parking lot by a police officer.

“If people feel that by just going to get a complaint form, (the police) are going to be … keeping an eye on them … (and) watching license plates, they don’t want to do that,” she said.

Task Force

The traffic stop study has prompted some residents to call on the Urbana City Council to commission a task force to address the disparities. The goal of the task force would be to both further study any disparities in the way minorities are policed as well as to reduce the disparities.

“Racial profiling is a crime. You can’t use a crime to reduce crime,” Miller said.

Previously, the Urbana City Council approved a motion calling for the creation of a task force once specific goals had been set.

At Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, Bill Brown, Ward 4, brought forth a proposal outlining specific guidelines for the creation of such a task force. Under this proposal, the task force would be established by February 2014 and would have 11 members.

According to the proposal: “At least two members will have education and expertise in statistics. One council member may serve on the task force. Five members shall be appointed from nominations supplied by the community organizations that petitioned for the creation of a task force (Champaign Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, the local NAACP Chapter, the local ACLU Chapter, the Ministerial Alliance of Champaign/Urbana and Vicinity and the League of Women Voters), with one representative from each. Other members shall be chosen based upon their knowledge and understanding of sociology, law enforcement, or other relevant experience.”

Following hesitation to commit to the proposal at this time, city council members voted to keep the proposal in committee to allow further discussion on the exact parameters of the task force. The council moved to review the proposal on Jan. 6 after a revision, headed by Ammons, Prussing and Brown, is made to the proposal.

“I’m not ready quite to support anything that specific,” said Eric Jakobsson, Ward 2. “I support the spirit of (the proposal), but there are a lot of details that I’m probably not quite ready to sign on to yet.”

University of Illinois Police

Although the disparities represented in the traffic stop study for Urbana and Champaign seem to indicate that African-Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, the numbers for the University of Illinois Police Department, which patrols campus streets in both cities, indicate that Asian drivers are the most highly policed on campus in comparison to their estimated percentage of the driving population.

Deputy Chief of Police for UIPD Skip Frost said race does not play a role in the likeliness for a driver to be stopped.

“We don’t profile people. We profile behaviors,” he said.

He also said because the estimated driving population was an extrapolation of the 2010 census data, it was difficult to apply it to the University, which has a large population of international students who may not be accounted for in the census.

Henry Huynh, junior in LAS, said he didn’t worry about police discriminating against Asian drivers. Instead, he said, his biggest concern while driving is pedestrians that aren’t wary of traffic.

Looking forward

Steve Portnoy, president of the Urbana American Civil Liberties Union, said regardless of what the data indicates, it is clear that people feel like they are being discriminated against.

“We need to address the fact that the community feels that it’s being disproportionately affected by the policing that’s going on,” he said. “Until that’s changed, I think it’s going to continue to be a problem.”

Prussing said she felt Urbana was being targeted unfairly and that the task force should have a broader scope.

But Avery said the intention was not to point fingers at anyone and not to single out Urbana alone.

“Urbana has always been a more progressive body than Champaign. They’ve always been fair, impartial, and had an open ear,” she said. “We have to start somewhere, and if no one is willing to help us … then where do we go?”

The Daily Illini reached out to the Champaign Police Department but was unable to set up an interview. 

Eli can be reached at [email protected].