When Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed Senate Bill 30 in July 2003, he mandated all state law enforcement agencies to collect data on every traffic stop officers made. The reason for the study was to pinpoint any signs of racial profiling by police.
Throughout 2004, nearly all of the state’s police department’s complied with the directive, and the Illinois Department of Transportation last week unveiled its first comprehensive report on traffic stops in Illinois.
The results back up what local law enforcement officials have been saying since the study began in early 2004?”there’s little evidence that police are stopping minority motorists in disproportionate numbers.
But the report did highlight some interesting differences between departments. For example, Riverside officers, despite the department’s small size, made many more traffic stops than their colleagues in neighboring communities.
Meanwhile, Brookfield officers gave many more verbal warnings to motorists than both Riverside and North Riverside, and Riverside officers were more likely to ask motorists for consent searches than their counterparts in Brookfield and North Riverside.
Despite having only 12 patrol officers and four sergeants, Riverside police made 834 more traffic stops than those in Brookfield, which in 2004 had two lieutenants, seven sergeants and 22 patrol officers on its force. Riverside also made 2,131 more traffic stops than North Riverside, which had 22 officers regularly on patrol during the period of the study.
The high number of traffic stops in Riverside, according to Police Chief Eugene Karczewski, was a result of the department’s focus on state routes?”Harlem, First and Ogden avenues?”that run along the edges of the village.
“Our thrust is on the major roads in town, the places where we have major accidents,” Karczewski said. “That’s where we place a ton of our enforcement efforts. It’s our job to prevent people from getting hurt.”
Those roads, which form three of the village’s borders, Karczewski said, also carry a more diverse population of drivers than within Riverside itself, which is 95-percent white.
“We’re proud they’re making more stops than other bigger departments,” Karczewski said. “We’re training officers to be highly aggressive and highly observant.”
North Riverside’s traffic stop numbers are significantly lower than Riverside’s despite having many of the same state routes cutting through the village. But North Riverside also has several major shopping strips, including North Riverside Park Mall.
“We average about 20,000 calls for service each year, and the mall keeps us busy with a lot of activity out of there,” said North Riverside Police Chief Anthony Garvey. “A misdemeanor takes one or two hours, and a felony even more than that. Traffic enforcement is important, but the officers are geared toward more serious offenses that are related to reducing accidents.”
You’ve been warned
Motorists pulled over in Brookfield were much more likely to get off with a verbal warning than in either North Riverside or Riverside. On the flipside, Brookfield officers were less inclined to give written warnings than Riverside or North Riverside police.
Of the 3,921 total traffic stops made in Brookfield during 2004, nearly one quarter of those pulled over (906) were sent on their way with a verbal warning, and nearly 30 percent (1,117)were given either a verbal or written warning.
The warnings were given to motorists across the board in terms of race?”30 percent to both black and white motorists and 23 percent to Hispanic motorists.
By contrast, in Riverside and North Riverside, verbal warnings were extremely rare. Riverside police gave just 10 verbal warnings, but handed out 710 written warnings. North Riverside gave just six verbal warnings and 275 written warnings. As a result, just 11 percent of motorists pulled over in North Riverside and 16 percent pulled over in Riverside were sent away without a citation.
“When the legislation was written, there was a connotation that a verbal warning was considered a false stop,” Karczewski said. “It means the stop was used as a pretext for searching them. I don’t want that brush painted on our department.”
But Brookfield Police Lt. Michael Manescalchi said the verbal warnings were often given because they were, in fact, warranted.
“We allow our officers to use their own discretion and judgment on whether or not a violation warrants the issuing of a citation,” Manescalchi said. “Imagine you were stopped for expired plates but showed the officer that you had the sticker in the glove box and forgot to put it on. You then got out of your car and put it on immediately. The officer would likely just let it go with a warning since the violation was corrected immediately.”
In North Riverside, Garvey said that his officers were instructed to avoid verbal warnings in light of the study.
“The theory was we wanted a written warning to track what violation was being committed,” Garvey said. “There’s more record keeping and accountability. If we just gave verbal warnings, there’d be no way to track the stop.”
A look around
Meanwhile, Riverside officers were more likely to ask detained motorists to submit to consent searches than their counterparts in Brookfield and North Riverside.
While the ratio of consent searches?”those in which there is no other legal or procedural justification?”in Riverside was just 1 percent of all traffic stops, officers in that village conducted 43 consent searches. Brookfield officers conducted 12 consent searches, while North Riverside officers asked for consent searches just twice.
Karczewski chalked up the number of consent searches to his officers’ aggressiveness.
“If we see anything suspicious, we’ll ask to search them,” Karczewski said. “We want our guys to be aggressive. We’re looking beyond the traffic stop. They need to be looking, observing, not just writing tickets and riding off into the sunset.”
With respect to racial profiling, the report concluded that “the proportion of minorities stopped is only slightly higher than one would expect based on our estimate of the driving population.”
For example, Brookfield, Riverside and North Riverside are grouped with other communities in the Fourth Cook County Circuit Court District as a way of determining the percentage of minorities motoring through the villages. Based on IDOT’s figures, the driving population in the Fourth District in 2004 was 43.47 percent minorities.
In Riverside, 50.5 percent of traffic stops involved minority motorists; in North Riverside minority motorists accounted for 53.2 percent of traffic stops. Meanwhile, in Brookfield, minority drivers were involved in just 27.8 percent of traffic stops.
“I think the numbers are a reflection of our community,” said Brookfield’s Manescalchi.
North Riverside, whose main thoroughfares include Cermak Road, Harlem Avenue and First Avenue, and which has North Riverside Park Mall as a regional attraction, experienced a similar scenario in terms of minority stops.
Garvey said that he’s waiting to get further feedback from Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety, which directed the project for IDOT, to see if there are areas in which his department could improve.
“We’re waiting to see how our numbers jive with agencies in the area,” Garvey said. “We’re willing to follow any recommendation on what we need to do. We spent a year gathering the data. Now we need to figure out what it means, and what we need to do down the road.”