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Evergreen Park police car

An Evergreen Park police car sits in the department’s parking lot on Dec. 19, 2023. The southwest suburban village of roughly 20,000 residents is known for making traffic stops, particularly of Black drivers. Only Chicago Police and Illinois State Police have stopped more Black drivers since 2004, according to a WBEZ analysis.

Manuel Martinez

Evergreen Park stops more Black drivers than almost anywhere else in Illinois

A few months ago, Jamarcus Dixon wrapped up what seemed to be a regular workday at Planet Fitness.

His girlfriend was picking him up. Right after she started the car, a police officer in an unmarked black truck pulled up next to them.

“It was at night, I was getting off work and her lights wasn’t on. I understand that’s a reasonable stop, but we literally just turned the car on,” said Dixon, 20. The officer issued him a ticket. Dixon wasn’t driving.

For about a year and a half, Dixon worked at the Planet Fitness in Evergreen Park, a two-mile wide suburb right outside Chicago, immediately west of the city’s Beverly neighborhood.

On a typical workday, Dixon said he would see police cars parked near the Planet Fitness parking lot both when he arrived for his shift in the morning and when he left work in the evenings.

Dixon said the police presence in Evergreen Park makes him nervous, and he makes sure to drive carefully. “Seat belt on, lights on, I don’t want them to stop us for no reason,” said Dixon, who is Black.

Evergreen Park stretches from 87th to 103rd streets, north to south, and from Western to Pulaski avenues, east to west, with 95th Street serving as its major thoroughfare.

The southwest suburban village has a population of roughly 20,000 — about 56% of its residents are white, 23% are Black and 16% are Latino, according to 2022 census figures — but its police department has routinely stopped more Black drivers than nearly any other police department in Illinois.

From 2004 through 2022, Evergreen Park police officers stopped a total of about 181,600 Black drivers, according to a WBEZ analysis of 42.5 million traffic stop records from more than 1,000 jurisdictions across Illinois obtained by WBEZ and the Investigative Project on Race and Equity.

Only the Chicago Police Department and Illinois State Police stopped more Black drivers during that 19-year span.

Critics say the volume of Black drivers being stopped by police in the small suburb is due to the department’s aggressive approach toward traffic violations and the disproportionate share of Black drivers involved in those stops — some even say Evergreen Park Police engages in racial profiling. Police officials deny those allegations and say the numbers reflect the demographics of individuals driving through the village and the department’s attempts to promote traffic safety.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, the number of traffic stops made by Evergreen Park Police took a steep dip, as it did for many other police departments across the state.

While the volume of stops hasn’t returned to its pre-pandemic levels, it has started to creep back up, and the racial disparities are widening. From 2021 to 2022, the number of Black drivers stopped has increased at twice the rate of white drivers stopped.

Jamarcus Dixon and Kennedy Smith

Jamarcus Dixon and Kennedy Smith outside of Walmart in Evergreen Park on Dec. 8, 2023.

Amy Qin

Black drivers have been the subject of more than 50% of all traffic stops made by Evergreen Park each year from 2004 to 2022. In 2022, the share of stops involving Black drivers hit a 10-year high of more than 60%. That’s nearly three times the share of the town’s Black population.

Traffic stop outcomes in Evergreen Park are roughly in line with statewide levels. About 54% of the stops Evergreen Park Police made from 2004 through 2022 resulted in a citation, 25% in a written warning and 20% in a verbal warning. However, the department’s citation rates during that span were higher for Latino and Black drivers — 61% and 58%, respectively — than they were for white drivers, 47%, according to a WBEZ analysis.

“Evergreen Park is a unique location”

Evergreen Park Police say they have “strict rules, regulations, and policies forbidding any type of racial or biased based traffic enforcement,” according to a statement from Lt. Wendi Franklin of the department’s Special Services Division. Evergreen Park Police declined an interview with WBEZ.

“It is important to note that Evergreen Park is a unique location, in that it is surrounded on three sides by the City of Chicago and the surrounding Chicago ward residents are primarily minority citizens,” Franklin wrote.

“Those residents travel on the major roadways such as 95th Street, Western Avenue, 87th Street, 99th Street, 103rd Street, California Avenue, Kedzie Avenue, and Pulaski Avenue, to travel from Chicago into the south suburbs and beyond,” the statement read. “In addition, the OSF Little Company of Mary Hospital is located in Evergreen Park and is a major medical center that services a predominant population of Chicago residents.”

The majority of Black drivers stopped by Evergreen Park Police are drivers from Chicago ZIP codes, according to WBEZ’s analysis of stops since 2010, the earliest year in which driver ZIP code data was available.

Franklin noted that the majority of drivers who pass through the village are minority because of its location. The share of minority drivers Evergreen Park Police have stopped from 2018 to 2022 was 62.2%, according to the statement.

“This percentage is below the current estimated minority driving population benchmark of 64.4% which was adjusted in 2018,” wrote Franklin.

That benchmark is an estimate of the percentage of drivers that pass through Evergreen Park in a given year who are minority drivers. It’s calculated by a third-party consultant for an annual Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) report on traffic stops.

The estimates are used to “detect racial profiling,” according to the most recent report submitted on June 30, 2023, which summarizes traffic stops made in 2022. If a police department’s share of traffic stops by race line up with the benchmark population’s racial breakdown, then there isn’t evidence of racial profiling, according to the study.

“The benchmark provides an expected racial distribution of the population and would be an expected racial distribution of the stops if the stops were conducted in a uniform way across races,” the report states. “That is, the stop rates calculated using an ideal benchmark would be approximately constant across all racial groups if there were no profiling.”

Evergreen Plaza shopping center

The Evergreen Plaza open-air shopping center is one of several shopping destinations along Western Avenue in Evergreen Park. Police officials say these commercial strips draw many nonwhite consumers to the village and help explain the racial makeup of individuals stopped by Evergreen Park Police.

Manuel Martinez

“Since the last benchmark review in 2018, a number of significant changes have occurred in Evergreen Park that have impacted travel to and through Evergreen Park,” Franklin wrote.

“Most importantly, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Meijer grocery store, Menards and a number of other retail establishments have opened on Western Avenue. This is in addition to the more than 100 retail establishments and restaurants within the Village of Evergreen Park,” the statement read.

However, IDOT has published more recent driving population benchmarks for Evergreen Park. According to IDOT, the benchmarks published after 2020 are more accurate and include a detailed racial breakdown beyond just percentages for minority and white drivers.

A WBEZ analysis of 2021 and 2022 data shows significant racial disparities between Evergreen Park’s estimated driving population and the subjects of its traffic stops. In 2021, 56% of stops involved Black drivers while the estimated Black driving population was 43%, a difference of 13 percentage points. In 2022, the share of Black drivers stopped was 60% whereas the driving population was estimated to be 42% Black, an 18-percentage-point difference.

In addition, other comparable Chicago suburbs had larger estimates of Black drivers than Evergreen Park, but stopped far fewer Black drivers.

For example, west suburban Oak Park is another majority-white suburb that borders majority non-white parts of Chicago on two sides and a majority-Hispanic suburb on a third side. In both 2021 and 2022, Oak Park had a slightly higher estimated Black driving population than Evergreen Park, according to IDOT, but Oak Park Police stopped half as many Black drivers as Evergreen Park Police.

Evergreen Park Police declined to comment on the higher share of Black drivers being stopped in the village compared to the most recent estimates of its Black driving population.

Evergreen Park traffic along 95th Street

Traffic along 95th Street in Evergreen Park on Dec. 19, 2023.

Manuel Martinez

The driving population benchmarks aren’t perfect. They are statistical estimates based on a combination of census counts, crash reports and other data.

From year to year, benchmarks can change drastically depending on the consultant hired to calculate the estimates and the methods they use. From 2020 to 2021, for example, the Black driving population for Evergreen Park increased from 6.98% to 43.01% due to changes in the methodology and the data used to calculate the estimates, according to an IDOT spokesperson.

Evergreen Park Police even asked IDOT to adjust their estimated minority driving population figures in 2009 and 2010, according to comments posted in the traffic stops reports from those two years. In 2009 and 2010, the share of Evergreen Park traffic stops involving Black drivers surpassed 70%. In both years, Police Chief Michael Saunders argued that the benchmarks did not reflect increases in the town’s minority population and minority traffic flow. IDOT did not adjust the village’s benchmarks.

While Evergreen Park’s population has changed significantly in the last two decades, the racial breakdown of its traffic stops has remained relatively steady, according to a WBEZ analysis of census and traffic stops data. Evergreen Park’s white population has steadily declined in the last two decades from roughly 86% of the population In 2000 to 56% in 2020, while the percentage of white drivers stopped remained around 30%. Meanwhile, the village’s Black and Latino populations have grown from 8% Black in 2000 to 24% Black in 2020, and from 4% Latino in 2000 to 17% Latino in 2020. However, the share of Evergreen Park traffic stops for those groups has not shifted significantly. In 2004, Black drivers made up 58% of stops and Latino drivers were 7%. In 2020, Black drivers made up 57% of stops and Latino drivers 6%.

“We could just look out the window”

Statistics aside, some Black motorists said they make sure to drive cautiously when passing through Evergreen Park because the police there have a reputation for stopping Black drivers.

“It just seems like it is a higher rate of people being pulled over who are Black and Brown people … that’s what people have told me, and I’ve seen it, too,” said Shay Pruitt, 61.

Pruitt lives in nearby Beverly, although she often shops in Evergreen Park. Pruitt said she was stopped, for a missing tail light, a few years ago while driving on 95th Street.

“I tend to go the speed limit when I’m driving in Evergreen Park, because I know if I don’t, there’s a good chance I could be pulled over,” Pruitt said.

Arzrow Staten Jr.

Arzrow Staten Jr., 38, on his way out of the Planet Fitness in Evergreen Park on Dec. 8, 2023.

Amy Qin

Arzrow Staten Jr., 38, lives in nearby south suburban Blue Island, and goes to the Planet Fitness in Evergreen Plaza.

“It was well known that, you know, up and down 95th Street, just be careful because Evergreen Park and the surrounding municipalities had a reputation of … kind of being overly zealous of minor traffic infractions,” said Staten.

Staten said he worked in Evergreen Park for five years and regularly witnessed traffic stops happening throughout the workday.

“They had the big glass windows, and we could just look out the window,” said Staten. “Throughout our eight-hour shift, you would see at least three to four cars pulled over.”

On average from 2004 through 2022, Evergreen Park Police stopped 26 Black drivers per day, compared to 15 white drivers, according to the WBEZ analysis. On Nov. 27, 2009 — that year’s Black Friday — Evergreen Park Police stopped 70 Black drivers — the most in any single day during that 19-year period — stopping at least one Black driver every hour of that day.

Traffic stop data for local police departments in Illinois has only been available since 2004, but David Lowery Jr., CEO of the Living and Driving While Black Foundation, says Evergreen Park has a long history of racial profiling.

“Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as a young man, I grew up in [Chicago’s] Englewood [neighborhood]. And we would always come to the mall, Evergreen Park Mall, which a lot of Black folks would come to,” Lowery said. “We always knew our parents say, you know, ‘you be careful when you go over that to that mall, you know, the police there be stopping young Black men.’”

Lowery said he was stopped by Evergreen Park Police twice in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He hasn’t been stopped there since, but Lowery said he gets a steady stream of calls from drivers who have been ticketed in Evergreen Park and need help finding a lawyer to represent them in court.

“The attitude of Evergreen Park Police has never changed since I was a little boy,” Lowery said. “That attitude is if you’re Black, you’re gonna be stopped.”

Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @amyqin12.

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