Changes elusive after profiling legislation

In 2003, the Illinois General Assembly passed SB0030, making Illinois one of 15 states that require police departments to keep detailed information–” such as the race of drivers and traffic violations–”of every traffic stop.

Signing the measure into law, then- Gov. Rod. R. Blagojevich led the cheers. “Simply being a member of a minority group is not justification for suspicion,” he declared. “We will not tolerate the unfair harassment of law-abiding minorities. With this study, police supervisors will now be able to measure and eliminate racial profiling on their forces.”

More than five years later, the law’s architects would be hard-pressed to show any significant changes resulting from it.

State Sen. Rickey R. Hendon, one of the co-sponsors, said the law’s effectiveness was diminished when an amendment to seal the identities of police officers and drivers involved in traffic stops was added to the original language. The amendment, Hendon said, was an attempt to gain the support from the police union, which he said was “diametrically opposed to the bill in any form.”

“We didn’t need their vote, but they have a lot of influence, and people didn’t want to piss them off,” he said. “At one point, [they were] saying that racial profiling didn’t exist–”that there was no such thing.”

A 2007 amendment to the law incorporated language to make sure the data are available for police departments “to perform internal reviews.” “The idea is to get the statistics,” said state Rep. Paul D. Froehlich, the chief sponsor of the amendment. “The whole intention of the law is –¦ first to determine where problems exist and then to correct them –¦ not to try and embarrass or punish individual officers based solely on some data, which can be misinterpreted.”

But such review of the data, and resulting corrective actions, by each police department is not mandated by the law. Froehlich said the act of data collection itself is enough to encourage internal reviews by each agency. “If somebody tells you, –˜Here’s the criteria you’ll be evaluated on,’ I just think it’s probably natural that –¦ they’re going to want to do something about it,” he said.

State Rep. Monique Davis, chief sponsor of the original legislation in the House of Representatives, isn’t taking chances. In February, she introduced an amendment that requires law enforcement agencies to conduct an internal review and “immediately act to remedy or resolve any pattern of behavior –¦ determined to be evidence of racial profiling.”

There are also inherent challenges in the methods of data collection and analysis.

For one, it is up to the discretion of police officers to determine the race of each driver. “The classification of who is being stopped is extremely subjective,” said Roy Lucke, director of research at the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety. “The officer who makes the traffic stop … has to identify the person stopped in one of the defined racial or ethnic categories, and there is absolutely no guidance or definition given.”

Another challenge is the difficulty in getting accurate statistics for the driver population to be used as a comparative benchmark.

The Center for Public Safety, which has contracted with the Illinois Department of Transportation to produce an aggregate study each year using traffic stop data, uses census figures to determine the driver population. Census 2000 is the latest data available for the analysis. Compounding the issue is the lack of official statistics that can gauge who’s on the road in a given community–”including nonresidents.

“There just is no easy way … to readily define the driving mix on the roads,” Lucke said. “Police stops are hypothetically a proportional mix of people who use the road–”not who live in the town. That is what the challenge is for every community–”determining what the mix of drivers is on the highway.”

Lucke cited the example of north suburban Highland Park, which is majoritywhite but sits next to Highwood, a community with a high Latino population.

“Given where Highwood sits, you have to go through Highland Park to get to major metropolitan areas,” he said. “The driver population equally reflects Highwood as much as Highland Park.”

Others say that, despite its flaws, the law has been a positive addition to Illinois policing. “Although we at first had reservations about it, I think overall it turned out to be a good bill,” said Laimutis Nargelenas, director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “We knew that there were some problems in law enforcement … this racial profiling study has actually brought that out … and also highlighted some areas that we should look at.”

Hendon said the law is just the first step in the initiative to end racial profiling. “The first thing to do was to get the ball rolling and to prove–”which the data has–” that there is racial profiling,” he said. “I am not naí¯ve enough to believe that we could ever stop … racial profiling. But we can identify the abusers and get them counseling or get them the hell out of the force.”

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