Poor data keeps Chicago’s stop and frisk hidden from scrutiny

Poor data keeps Chicago’s stop and frisk hidden from scrutiny

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.
The 900 west block of Belmont Avenue has the most contact cards issued in the 19th District in 2013. The area near the Belmont Red Line stop netted 728 logged encounters with police until June. Regular robberies in the area have prompted police to step up efforts to stop suspicious persons. (WBEZ/Elliott Ramos)

In Chicago, stop and frisk is alive and well – but relatively unchecked.

Encounters with Chicago police officers often begin with a little-known form called a contact card. The card logs everything from a voluntary conversation with a citizen to an involuntary stop of someone deemed suspicious. When necessary, this can result in a stop and frisk.

While the contact form is used for so much police work, the details contained within them are unruly – and near impossible to obtain in volume.

Last month a federal judge ruled against the New York Police Department, ruling its much maligned stop and frisk procedure, a system of conducting investigatory stops and searches, violated the constitutional rights of minorities.

According to Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling, the NYPD conducted 4.4 million stops between 2004 and 2012, 52 percent of which resulted in a stop and frisk.

The program is not unique to New York, but is a police tactic utilized throughout the U.S., including Chicago. The Terry stops, as they’re referred to here, are the detention of persons who warrant suspicion of a crime. Only when the stop escalates to a pat down for weapons, used as a safety precaution, does it become a “stop and frisk.”

But how many of these stops have occurred in Chicago? And are we having the same problems with race that New York identified?  

ACLU’s narrative samples
The ACLU of Illinois obtained a sampling of some of Chicago’s contact card narratives, with redactions of private information. The full sampling can be found here, and the full documentation here, courtesy of the ACLU of Illinois.

The true answer is nobody really knows, and under current Police Department reporting guidelines, getting a historical breakdown of Chicagoans subjected to a frisk is not easy.

“This is the strongest exercise of police power short of an arrest,” said Harvey Grossman, legal director of the ACLU of Illinois.

His group has been intimately familiar with the inner workings of stop and frisk in Chicago. In 2003, the ACLU sued the city on behalf of Olympic speed skater and Chicago native, Shani Davis, and two others, claiming that they were unfairly targeted for street stops and searches.

Before that, the ACLU fought and won a Supreme Court case against the city. That case, Chicago v. Jesus Morales, challenged the city’s anti-gang loitering ordinance, which the court found to be too vague and gave law enforcement too much power in defining loitering as remaining “in any one place with no apparent purpose.”

“There is no external check on stop and frisk,” Grossman said.

In January of this year, the ACLU drafted a memo to the city, addressed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, corporation counsel Steve Patton, and Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy.

In it, the ACLU outlined efforts to unearth Chicago’s stop and frisk data, and formally requested that the city create a publicly-accessible database specific to monitoring the police department’s stop and frisks.

In the New York ruling, the judge cited figures about the demographics of those stopped by police that are “uncontested,” utilizing the NYPD’s own data from reports officers filled out. That data was aggregated from a form called a UF-250. This allowed outside organizations such as the New York Civil Liberties Union to aggregate and analyze long-term trends, and even publish quarterly reports.

No such database exists for Chicago.

While Chicago gets credited for publishing one of the most extensive crime databases in the country via the city’s data portal, it doesn’t have an electronic database of the stop and frisks performed. And the method of recording them is so opaque, the public and media cannot easily assess how many are done, who they’re done to, and what motivated an officer to stop a person in the first place.

The Chicago Police Department’s method of recording a stop and frisk is within a contact card. A contact card provides “a means for sworn members to document encounters with citizens that may serve a useful police purpose but do not otherwise require any written reports,” according to the police department’s Special Order S04-13-09. This is not to be confused with a crime incident report, which is generated when a crime is reported, or arrest report, which is generated when police take a person into custody.

Police officers patrol a busy part of Clark Street on a Saturday night. The Wrigleyville neighborhood is part of the CPD's 19th district and the area near the ball park is defined as beat 1924.

The police department says contact cards are a part of more active neighborhood policing. Adam Collins is the director of news affairs for the Chicago Police Department.

“In recent years the Chicago Police Department has undertaken a return to community policing and part of that effort is ensuring that officers get out of their cars and interact with members of the community,” Collins said.

“Those interactions, if they are a voluntary encounter or an investigatory stop, may be documented in contact cards,” he said. “Because there are more interactions, many of which are voluntary encounters, there are more contact cards, which again are merely a way of documenting those interactions. For circumstances resulting in arrests a contact card is not prepared.”

The cards can be used to log a response to a complaint that didn’t result in a crime incident report, voluntary interactions with a citizen, search warrants and traffic stops.

The data gets archived and maintained by the CPD’s director of records, according to the special order.

The form itself requires officers to record identifying information, descriptions of persons stopped, and has a fairly extensive categorization for interactions among gang members, who according to some police sources often self-identify as belonging to a gang.

After analyzing forms from both cities, we found that Chicago’s contact cards (displayed below) do not have fields (a checkbox) that simply and explicitly say a frisk was conducted. New York City does. Additionally, it won’t convey specifically if the person was stopped involuntarily. Instead, that information is logged in a text description box, that is often scant on details with entries that are vastly open to interpretation.

A series of checkboxes, while limited in detail, can be mandated and set the baseline requirements of information gathering in a stop. They can be more easily broken down into stats that allow for analysis.

Further, these unruly narrative fields may have private information that must be meticulously redacted before being released to a requesting body. Not a problem for an individual card, but a major headache if you requested a year or more’s worth of data to assess how the policy is being implemented.

For media outlets utilizing a Freedom of Information Act request, such redaction can be considered “burdensome,” and be grounds to reject the request — especially if the redactions run in the hundreds of thousands.  

This has the effect of keeping the full contact card database largely hidden from view – and consequently: scrutiny.

The ACLU wants the police to do better documentation, which they say would allow for better review.

“This is the most powerful tool the police department has and it is not reviewed by another branch of government,” Grossman said.

ACLU takes a crack at Contact Cards

In April 2011, the ACLU requested the CPD release an electronic database of its contact card system via the Freedom of Information Act. In July of that year, the police department disclosed records of 177,000 for a six-month period starting in April of 2010.

The ACLU asked the police to search the narratives for a series of keywords, which included: detain, frisk, investigatory street stop, pat down, search, suspect or Terry.

After much back-and-forth, the CPD eventually produced a sampling of 298 records with narrative fields that redacted individuals’ names and addresses.

It allowed the ACLU to get a glimpse at the types of narratives entered by police officers.

Those ran the gamut of detailed explanations that spanned one or two paragraphs, to single sentence descriptions that often used police parlance or shorthand.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that these resulted in a stop and frisk. It may just be that an officer stopped and questioned an individual.

“Having officers communicate with individuals is a technique that has been used by every police department in the world as long as there has been policing,” Collins said. “We document communications serving an investigatory or police purpose through contact cards.”

What’s going on in the 19th?

In May, 19th Police District Commander Elias Voulgaris stated that officers increased the amount of contacts. This was in response to community concerns about robberies in the Lakeview neighborhood.

We wanted to examine contact cards and see what, if any, information could be gleaned. Because the narrative portions would require meticulous redaction, we asked for information that did not include the description field about reasons for contact.

This leaves an analysis of the stops relatively incomplete and open for interpretation.

We want to emphasise: Given the current state of the Chicago Police Department’s data collection standards on contact cards, we cannot, nor can anyone without the narrative description field, reasonably determine the exact number of stop and frisks – or who gets stopped.

WBEZ FOIA’d the contact card data, minus the narratives, for the 19th district for 2012-2013. This district includes Uptown, Roscoe Village, Lakeview, Hamlin Park, Ravenswood and parts of Lincoln Park.

Out of the 30,355 records received, 9,639 contacts were labeled as “suspect.”

This excludes categories labeled as gang, traffic, dispersal and the largest chunk: other, which accounted for 12,578 of the records, or 41.42 percent of the 19th district data for 2012 and 2013. (There was also a category for ccdoc, which presumably is for Cook County Department of Corrections. One other was identified as R.O.G.U.E., the purpose of which, we’re awaiting clarification from the Chicago Police Department.)

Chicago police patrol Clark Street, just south of Wrigley Field. On a warm Saturday night, the crowd overflows from the bars prompted many to walk in the street. These officers were seen breaking up a fight between bar patrons five minutes after this photo was taken. (WBEZ/Elliott Ramos)
For the 19th district there were 9,639 suspect contact cards between January 2012 and June 2013.
  • Black: 5,524 (57.31%)

  • White: 2,391 (24.81%)

  • White Hispanic: 1,494 (15.18%)

  • Asian: 118 (1.22%)

But what does that mean?

Without detailed narratives, and explicit categorizations, these numbers lack needed context.

The Police Department strongly cautions against drawing conclusions from those numbers, absent the narratives.

CPD’s Collins also said that for the first six months of this year, the racial demographics of the contact cards strongly resembles the ratio of suspect demographics of those in crime incident reports.

In police parlance, this means that if a person in the area is mugged, assaulted etc., and the victim or witness gives a description, the demographics of those descriptions go into a crime case report. The demographic stats from those reports is on par with those stopped for suspicion. According to the police department:

2010 Census demographics of Chicago’s 19th Police District


  • Contact card: 30.5%

  • Case report suspect: 27.1%


  • Contact card: 49.9%

  • Case report suspect: 53.1%


  • Contact card: 16.5%

  • Case report suspect: 17.3%


  • Contact card: 3.1%

  • Case report suspect: 2.5%

Source: Chicago Police Department

While the New York ruling found there was a disproportionate amounts of blacks to whites frisked, we cannot glean that from the available Chicago data.

“CPD expressly prohibits racial profiling and other bias based policing,” Collins said.

“While investigatory stops are a legitimate law enforcement technique, race is not a factor for a stop,” he said. “The only factor that can be taken into account for an investigatory stop is reasonable suspicion that the person is committing, is about to commit or has committed an offense.”

The question remains: why is the number of blacks “encountered” so much higher than whites, especially in predominantly white neighborhoods of the 19th district?

“We ought to be able to review that externally as citizens,” said Grossman, referring to the contact card data.

In 2012, out of the 15 beats in the 19th District, the one that had the most contact cards on file was beat 1914, an area of Uptown bounded by Broadway, Montrose, Lawrence and the lakefront. That beat netted 3,459 contact cards, with 2,482 (71.75%) of them being black and 448 (12.95%) being white.

Many 2010 census blocks for Lakeview and much of District 19 has the general population that’s mostly white (hovering around 90-95 percent). But of course, this does not account for thousands of visitors that regularly patronize the area’s bars, restaurants or Wrigley Field, which makes census-level comparison moot.

It is worth noting, one of the greatest concentrations of Chicago’s restaurants, taverns and outdoor cafes are in District 19, second only to the city’s downtown area.

For the beat number 1924, which encompasses much of Lakeview, there was a significant increase in contact cards from 2012 to June 2013, confirming what the district commander has said.

That meant that the nightlife beat, up until June, netted 2,188 contact cards, with over half (1,136) of the contact in Wrigleyville and Boystown being black — and 681 (31%) being white.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), whose ward encompasses this beat, would not comment for this story.

What’s missing?

What’s next?

In a letter addressed to the ACLU, the city’s corporation counsel Steve Patton declined on behalf of CPD, a request to create a database of stop and frisks.

“CPD respectfully declines ACLU’s request that it create and maintain an entirely new database limited to ‘sidewalk stop-and-frisks’. Such a database would duplicate the information already included in CPD’s Contact Card Information System with respect to investigatory stops and possible subsequent pat-downs that do not result in arrests, and serve no legitimate law enforcement purpose,” Patton wrote in his letter.

The letter went on to say that the Police Department would modify training to require that officers clearly state within the narrative field of the contact card whether or not a stop and frisk was conducted. This is the same field that would require extensive redaction upon request.

Patton also added that if a street stop resulted in an arrest, they would not duplicate the paperwork by requiring both a contact card (with stop and frisk notation) and an arrest report.

Why it matters

Encounters with police that begin with contact cards and escalate to crime incident reports or arrests leave little or no connecting link. If these contacts are the first step – and such an important one as to be touted at press conferences – toward more effective community policing, should the public be able to follow the trail from contact, to arrest, and onward through the criminal justice system?

That paper trail could reveal a lot. For example, if a frisk is meant to check against weapons, but revealed narcotics, there could be a resulting arrest.

“Pursuant to well settled law, if an officer has reasonable suspicion that an individual who has been stopped is carrying a weapon, under U.S. law they may do a protective search of that individual. If during the course of that search a weapon, narcotics, stolen goods or other illegal activity is discovered it is completely legal for an arrest to be made.” CPD’s Collins said.

The ratio of black to white arrests for marijuana in Chicago is 15 to 1, at least according to one news outlet keeping tabs on such things. That gap remains consistent throughout a legal chain from the court into the prison system, according to the Reader.

If the starting link in that chain is the practice of a stop and frisk, should the public be able to review how that police power is exercised?

Given that stop and frisk identification will remain within the narrative, the public cannot get specific data without heavy amounts of redacting on the part of CPD. In fact, they’re empowered to deny a FOIA request because of the level of burden such redacting puts on information officers.

“We want this information to be available to the public for review,” said Harvey Grossman. “We want there to be a simple process to protect private information. We should be able to do in Chicago what they did in New York.”

It may well be however, that until the data collection becomes more faceted and accessible, Chicago’s stop and frisks might literally – go unchecked.

Elliott Ramos is a data reporter and Web producer. Follow him @ChicagoEl


Powered by Socrata

Letter to Emanuel Patton McCarthy 1-15-13 by Chicago Public Media