Police Lights

Until about five years ago, police officers pulled me over a lot. I deserved it every time.

No need to sugarcoat it: I was violating traffic laws, usually either for speeding or rolling stops.

Sometimes, I received tickets, other times, warnings. That’s called officer discretion.

Since 2003, the state has mandated police departments report the demographic data of who they stop and whether they ticket them.

Last week, the Daily Journal ran my story about how local police departments fared in 2018. In short, nonwhite people who were stopped were more likely to receive tickets than white motorists. That trend applied to every department in the county, except Kankakee, where white people were ever so slightly more likely to be cited.

In all of these cases, officers presumably had “reasonable suspicion” to make stops — this is the legal standard to pull over drivers.

A few years ago, I wrote a story like this in another Illinois town, and it attracted a mountain of criticism. As expected, this latest story was no different.

Here are four thoughts on the whole subject:

ABOUT RACE

In the commentary on our Facebook page, a Kankakee man wrote, “Various reasons cause traffic stops. Some more serious than others. A lot of variables come into play other than race, but the article chooses to make it about race!” Another man chimed in, “The Daily Journal article reflects a total misuse of raw data to leap to an erroneous conclusion regarding race.”

I don’t know how we could arrive at any conclusion other than race. The data is about race, showing the percentage of whites and nonwhites who get tickets. All this data is compiled courtesy of taxpayer dollars, so it’s newsworthy.

THOSE WHO ARE STOPPED

A former Iroquois County man wrote in response to the disparities, “That’s because we actually stop?” I asked him, “Who is ‘we’”? He did not respond. Was he referring to the fact that he is white? The story had nothing to do with those who fail to stop. It’s about how police handle those who do stop. That’s why the information is labeled “traffic stop reports.”

RIDE-ALONGS

One reader from Iroquois County emailed a suggestion to me: “David, instead of writing on numbers, why don’t you go ride with these men and women of the local police forces!” I have no problem with doing a ride-along with police; it would certainly provide a good perspective. But it would not change the numbers from the traffic stop reports. Again, these are numbers from the police themselves. A Kankakee resident wrote me a letter saying the story’s headline, “Nonwhites are more likely to get traffic tickets,” was sensational. I’m not sure why he would say that, given that the headline represents what the police stats show. He pronounced me guilty of the charge of “looking for racism that doesn’t exist in this situation.” And he sentenced me to spending more time with Bourbonnais Police Chief Jim Phelps, who was quoted in the story, and watching three hours of the TV show, “Live PD.” I’d love to have talked with him about his suggestions, but he did not leave a phone number.

RACIAL PROFILING

There could be explanations other than racial profiling for the disparities among whites and nonwhites on who receives tickets. But some point to profiling as the explanation for the results of searches during traffic stops. Every department must report this information as well. It’s useless for us to report local departments’ numbers because the sample sizes are not big enough. Adding up the whole state, though, shows an unpleasant trend. In 2018, contraband, such as drugs, were found 34 percent of the time when whites agreed to have their cars searched. That percentage was 25 percent for nonwhites. And nonwhites agreed to such searches more often — 88 percent of the time, compared with 84 percent for whites. For dog-sniff searches, contraband was discovered 64 percent of the time in whites’ cars and 57 percent in nonwhites’. These figures are not just a one-year blip. They represent years-long trends.

David Giuliani is a reporter for the Daily Journal. His column “As It Is” expands upon regular news coverage. He can be reached at 815-802-5144 or dgiuliani@daily-journal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TDJ_dgiuliani.

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