Photo: Racial profiling laws
Eight years ago, Illinois began requiring police departments, including the state police force, to keep track of traffic stops to see whether their officers practiced racial profiling—stopping black or Hispanic motorists more often than whites because of their skin color.
Now, a civil rights group wants a federal investigation of the Illinois state police based largely on the data collected under the law, which was sponsored by Barack Obama when he was a state senator.
After examining the data, the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says state troopers ask to search the cars of black and Hispanic drivers more often than those of white drivers, in cases where police have no legal grounds to search the cars on their own without the driver’s consent. But state police are more than 2.5 times as likely to find illegal items (such as alcohol, drugs or stolen property) when searching the vehicles of whites compared to those of Hispanics. Alcohol is the most common item police find among all groups, the ACLU claims, but whites are the most likely to have drugs and drug paraphernalia.
The complaint is not focused on specific allegations of prejudiced behavior. What it alleges is that state officials hardly look at racial profiling information at all. The law requiring the collection of traffic stop data created a panel to review the results, but the slots were never filled and the group never met. “Nobody does anything with the data,” says Harry Grossman of the Illinois ACLU. “We are the only ones that have done anything.”
The situation in Illinois is typical. Nearly a dozen states require police to collect data about racial bias in traffic stops, but in most cases, little use is made of the data. States compile reports that just sit on a shelf.
Wisconsin had a law requiring the collection of data about racial profiling, but it lasted less than a year. The statute, passed by Wisconsin Democrats before they lost control of state government in 2010, was barely on the books before it was repealed by the Republicans who now dominate the legislature. Republicans cited objections from local police as a major reason for repealing the law.
Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth says filling out the forms took so much time, it was the equivalent of taking two of his deputies off the streets for a year. The forms asked for exhaustive data on the vehicle, location, driver and passengers in every stop. For each passenger in the car, there was an additional half-page form; stopping a van that carried six people required nine pages of forms, according to Beth. The sheriff says he saw little benefit from the new requirements. “The state of Wisconsin,” he says, “had no plan what to do with this information once it got turned in.”