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Dexter Reed police shooting still

Chicago Police officers at a fatal traffic stop in Humboldt Park last month. Chicago City Council members and civil rights activists are calling for an end to the use of so-called pretextual traffic stops. Critics say those are stops where police use minor, non-moving violations as an excuse to investigate motorists for more serious crimes.

Fatal police shooting of Dexter Reed sparks outcry to reform CPD’s use of traffic stops

Tuesday’s release of video from the police-shooting death of Dexter Reed Jr. has intensified calls from civil rights advocates and community leaders for the Chicago Police Department to end the use of what they call “pretextual” traffic stops.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) unveiled video footage of the fatal shooting of Reed that occurred on March 21, 2024. Reed was stopped in his vehicle by five Chicago Police tactical officers, purportedly for a seat belt violation, and engaged in gunfire with the officers, according to a COPA press release.

The release stated Reed “fired first,” striking an officer, and the other four officers fired approximately 96 shots back at Reed, within 41 seconds, including several rounds after he had exited his vehicle and collapsed.

As the investigation continues about whether the use of force by officers was justified, many officials are expressing concerns about how the tragic episode reportedly began — a traffic stop. They allege that CPD, in recent years, has relied heavily on pretextual traffic stops, in which officers use minor offenses, such as an expired license plate tag or a broken headlight, as a pretext to investigate individuals for more serious crimes.

COPA Chief Administrator Andrea Kersten

COPA Chief Administrator Andrea Kersten during a press conference at City Hall, on Tuesday, April 9, 2024, to address the shooting of Dexter Reed Jr. during a traffic stop in Humboldt Park.

Anthony Vazquez

“This disturbing death highlights the urgent need to reassess how traffic stops are conducted in Chicago, particularly in communities already experiencing the legacy of failed public policies that have led to over-policing, segregation, and divestment,” reads a press statement from Loren Jones. Jones is the director of criminal legal systems at Impact for Equity, a veteran racial and social justice advocacy group formerly known as Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, or BPI.

According to the statement, use of force by police at a traffic stop happens far too often.

“Almost all uses of force are against people of color,” the statement reads. “In 2023, 95% of uses of force at traffic stops were against people of color, and 78% were against Black people.”

For years, the ACLU of Illinois has also been critical of the volume and manner of Chicago Police traffic stops.

“The idea that you have five heavily armed tactical officers swarming the streets for an alleged minor seatbelt violation … it’s just absurd. It’s preposterous, and CPD needs to just outlaw the use of pretext as a basis for stopping drivers,” said Alexandra Block, the director of the Criminal Legal Systems and Policing Project at ACLU of Illinois.

In June 2023, the group filed a complaint against the department and the city of Chicago to seek an end to a practice of “racially discriminatory mass traffic stops.” The complaint states CPD officers pull over Black and Latino drivers for alleged minor traffic violations as an excuse to question and harass them about whether they have guns or drugs in the car. The case is currently moving forward through the discovery process, according to Block.

On Tuesday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that COPA had already raised questions about the purported traffic stop of Reed. In a letter to Police Superintendent Larry Snelling — sent days before the release of the shooting video — COPA Chief Administrator Andrea Kersten casted doubt on the department’s explanation for the traffic stop, according to the Sun-Times report.

Police Superintendent Larry Snelling

Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling briefs the media on security measures for the Democratic National Convention during a press conference at City Hall on March 6, 2024.

Anthony Vazquez

“Specifically, COPA is uncertain how the officers could have seen this seat belt violation given their location relative to [Reed’s] vehicle and the dark tints on [the car’s] windows,” Kersten wrote. “This evidence raises serious concerns about the validity of the traffic stop that led to the officers’ encounter with [Reed].”

In her letter to Snelling, Kersten also referenced another open COPA investigation into a previous traffic stop involving the same officers that also relates to an alleged seat belt violation, the Sun-Times reported.

Craig Futterman, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School, said he was shocked and shaken by what he saw in the body cam footage.

“There’s nothing that I could see, at least from the video, that provided justification for the stop, and the reason that was given, seat belt, was clearly pretextual,” he said.

Legislators call for reform

Chicago City Council members echoed calls for a cease and desist on pretextual stops.

“Dexter Reed’s death underscores the immediate need to end the harmful practice of pretextual traffic stops — these stops aren’t effective at decreasing serious crime in our city and they don’t advance roadway safety,” Ald. Jessie Fuentes, 26th ward, wrote in a press statement. “Our city’s approach to public safety must be expanded through investment in the violence prevention and community safety strategies that we know are working. As many community groups in Chicago amplify the call to eliminate the practice of pretextual traffic stops, I stand with them.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, released a press statement similar to Fuentes’s, writing, “Dexter Reed would be alive today were it not for what appears to be excessive force used in a pretextual stop. Community organizations in our ward and across the city are already calling for changes to pretextual stops, and I support their efforts.”

Ramirez-Rosa said the city needs to move away from broken policing strategies like it did with stop and frisk, the controversial practice of stopping pedestrians to question them or pat them down. As pedestrian stops in Chicago dramatically fell, traffic stops soared.

“Now we have found another strategy to continue to harass Black and brown people who oftentimes are not doing anything wrong. When that occurs, it can escalate to something much worse,” Ramirez-Rosa said Wednesday. “I think that this incident and this tragic death really bring into question CPD’s policy around pretextual stops and add credence to the organizing that’s already been happening that these policies need to change.”

Dexter Reed shooting protest

Porscha Banks, sister of Dexter Reed Jr., shouts at Chicago Police officers as activists try to deescalate the situation by pulling her from the officers during a protest outside the 11th District police station, Tuesday, April 9, 2024.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, 33rd Ward, said she plans to introduce a resolution to have the City Council hold hearings to discuss pretextual traffic stops.

“I think that this is something that we need to all become very informed about,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “I don’t think that many of my colleagues actually know what the evidence is.”

Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward, said hearings can help provide the City Council with more information to assess whether changes are needed, but he stressed that police officers have a difficult job and few tools at their disposal.

“For those people who are not out there, CPD is challenged with minimal tools that they have and CPD is responding to the cries of the community, residents, taxpayers, homeowners saying stop crime, do something. That’s what they’re responding to,” Moore said.

Still, the alderman would like to see traffic stops conducted more equitably.

“I liken that to the marijuana issue. Before marijuana was legal, a great proportion of Black people went to jail. But when marijuana went legal, who was standing in line? First day? Not Black people. White people,” Moore explained. “That wasn’t their first day using marijuana when it went legal. Why weren’t they being arrested proportionately. That’s what I want to get out of it ... equity in policing and equity in using certain tactics.”

Law enforcement in Illinois are no longer allowed to pull over drivers for having objects hanging from their rearview mirrors. That change was the result of a new law, which took effect on Jan. 1 of this year, authored by state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago.

“Springfield is very happy to continue to pass legislation that will help Chicago, but I don’t see anything right now, when we have a consent decree that Chicago should be following,” Ford said. “But I stand ready. I’m from the West Side of Chicago, minutes away from the incident.”

In late January, state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, introduced a bill to prohibit law enforcement officers from stopping motorists for a wide range of violations. The list included moving violations like improper lane usage and speeding, up to 25 miles per hour over the speed limit. But the list also included several minor, non-moving violations often associated with pretextual stops such as missing or expired registration stickers, excessive tints, defective mirrors or bumpers, and failure to wear a seat belt.

The bill also proposed to block law enforcement’s use of any evidence discovered or obtained as a result of a traffic stop in violation of these provisions. The bill was referred to the House Rules Committee, where it remains.

Just a few days after Slaughter introduced the bill, law enforcement pushed back hard.

“Of all the anti-police laws we have seen in recent years, this truly takes the pro-criminal cake,” said Illinois Fraternal Order of Police State Lodge President Chris Southwood, in a statement issued on Feb. 5, 2024. “How many lives will be lost if we can’t stop dangerous drivers? Such a law will only benefit lawbreakers.”

Slaughter said he’s working to cultivate a collaborative effort between community and law enforcement in an effort to bring the bill back for consideration.

“Negotiations are continuing to happen. Discussions are continuing to happen,” Slaughter said Thursday. “I would expect to see movement in terms of some amendments and certain policy suggestions that will come forth in the form of an amendment to [the bill].”

“A problem that desperately needs immediate change”

The shooting occurred in the 11th Police District — home to the West Side neighborhoods of East Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park — where the most traffic stops take place, data show.

A 2023 data report on traffic stops by the civil rights groups Impact for Equity and the Free2Move Coalition found the 11th District ranked first in traffic stops last year. An analysis by WBEZ and the Investigative Project on Race and Equity found the district also ranked first in 2022.

Additionally, a disproportionate number of traffic stops and a disproportionate number of ones that result in use of force occur in the 11th District, data show.

About 2.5% of the city’s population lives in the 11th District, according to data from CPD’s Tactical Response Reports. However, Impact for Equity found that about 10.5% of the city’s 537,000 traffic stops in 2023 were made there, and 15% of the 211 traffic stops that involved use of force last year happened in the 11th District.

Despite the challenges, some advocates view the oversight of the federal consent decree, the work of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA) and the leadership of Superintendent Snelling as opportunities for reform.

“I realize that he’s fairly new on the job, and I hope he takes this opportunity to focus on this with laser precision, because it is a problem that desperately needs immediate change,” said Block, of the ACLU of Illinois.

In the past, CPD has consistently provided the exact same statement, word for word, whenever WBEZ has asked questions about traffic stops. The department maintains that it engages in fair and constitutional policing and officers only conduct traffic stops when there’s probable cause or reasonable suspicion “that a crime, including but not limited to traffic violations, has been committed, is being committed or is about to be committed.”

However, this past Monday at a CCPSA public hearing with Snelling, the new superintendent claimed the department has seen a reduction of 46,000 traffic stops thus far this year, compared to the same time period a year ago. But he said there is still work that needs to be done.

The department hasn’t yet shared any data for traffic stops conducted in 2024. According to Impact for Equity, Chicago Police made roughly 166,000 traffic stops during the first quarter of 2023, just a few days shorter than the span of time the superintendent referenced. But Impact for Equity notes that a reduction of 46,000 from that figure would be about 120,000 traffic stops for the first quarter of this year, a figure slightly higher than the 118,000 stops made during the fourth quarter of last year, Snelling’s first full three months on the job.

“Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we are where we need to be. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’m willing to do that work,” Snelling said at the hearing, which was the third of four the CCPSA is required by law to hold so members of the public can address the superintendent and the commission and provide recommendations.

“I’m visiting groups and districts to talk to them about what the expectations are. So this is not something that’s going to happen overnight. We’re talking thousands and thousands of officers that we have to train out of this,” Snelling continued.

“In order for them to learn new things, we’ve got to get them to unlearn old things,” he said. “So we’re working toward that right now.”

Jessica Alvarado Gamez is a Roy W. Howard Fellow for WBEZ. Follow her @AlvvJess.

WBEZ’s Alex Degman, Alden Loury, Anna Savchenko and Tessa Weinberg contributed reporting.

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