The Chicago Police Department was urged Monday to rein in so-called “pre-textual” traffic stops that disproportionately target Black and Hispanic motorists and exacerbate distrust by “fishing” without any actual reason to suspect criminal violations.
In July 2022, an annual study of traffic and pedestrian stops conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union concluded Chicago police targeted African Americans in 63% of traffic stops in 2021, though Black residents are less than 30% of the city’s population.
“Continued racial inequities” in stops and searches mean that compared to white drivers in Chicago, Black motorists were 1.7 times more likely to be stopped, and Hispanic drivers were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped.
To remedy the burgeoning problem, a coalition of community and advocacy organizations known as Free2MoveChicago is proposing a three-point plan based on what police departments in other major cities have done. It calls for:
- Following the lead of Los Angeles by banning police stops for traffic violations when the “primary intention” of that stop is to “fish for other signs of criminal activity.” Amy Thompson, staff counsel for Impact for Equity, called “pre-textual” traffic stops the “reincarnation of stop-and-frisk.”
- Prohibiting all police stops for “low-level” traffic violations, such as a recently expired registration or one broken taillight when the other remains lit. Similar bans are in place in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
- Requiring Chicago police officers who have pulled a vehicle over for a traffic violation to have an “independent legal basis” to ask the driver to consent to be frisked, or to have their vehicle or belongings searched.
“We believe the combination of these policies will provide clear guidelines for officers and prevent this kind of biased practice from reemerging in another form, just like stop-and-frisk reemerged as traffic stops,” Thompson told the City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety.
“By implementing this three-part plan, Chicago would make significant progress toward reducing racially-discriminatory policing, freeing up wasted resources and achieving a more racially equitable traffic safety system,” she added.
“We expect to see more focus on … regulation of dangerous driving behaviors, fewer harmful interactions between civilians and police, increased trust between police and the communities they serve, reduced racial disparities, a reduced police workload, more efficient criminal investigations and, ultimately, a transformational shift in how policing is done in Chicago,” she said.
Monday was a subject matter hearing, meaning no vote was taken. But the committee did hear testimony, including stories from motorists making their case for the proposed reforms by talking about how they’d been traumatized after being targeted by traffic stops.
Policy changes can be enacted in one of three ways — by a civilian oversight panel, by the City Council or by newly appointed Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling.
Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Chair Daniel La Spata (1st) said the harrowing stories are “dramatically different from my own experience,” having never been involved in a traffic stop.
“It’s not because I’m an exemplary driver. My wife could confirm that,” La Spata said.
Ald. Desmon Yancy (5th) said he was pulled over “twice in a week and a half” last summer for “what I believe were pre-textual stops.”
“I had an accident, bought an old car that didn’t have a front license plate mount and was pulled over twice for not having a front license plate,” Yancy said.
“The second interaction was probably more interesting than the first in that it was broad daylight. … I was getting lunch in Woodlawn, and the police officer drove past and then made a U-turn in order to make this traffic stop. … This is a neighborhood that has different public safety needs than stopping people for not having a front license plate,” he said.
Ald. Jessie Fuentes (26th) was pulled over by police “not too long ago” for “allegedly being on my cellphone” while driving, a no-no in Chicago without a hands-free device.
“I didn’t have the cellphone on my person, so it was quite impossible to be on my cell phone during that traffic stop. And I’m privileged enough to be articulate, to know how to behave when pulled over,” Fuentes said.
“But there are folks all across the city who have trauma who may not react to those situations appropriately,” said Fuentes. “So I understand why we want to have the conversation around some minor traffic violations.”