When It Snows, Chicago Police Ticket Minority Communities More

A pedestrian in Englewood had to walk on unplowed streets on Sunday after a weekend of winter storms blanketed Chicago in over a foot of snow.
A pedestrian in Englewood had to walk on unplowed streets on Sunday after a weekend of winter storms blanketed Chicago in over a foot of snow. (Greta Johnsen/WBEZ)
A pedestrian in Englewood had to walk on unplowed streets on Sunday after a weekend of winter storms blanketed Chicago in over a foot of snow.
A pedestrian in Englewood had to walk on unplowed streets on Sunday after a weekend of winter storms blanketed Chicago in over a foot of snow. (Greta Johnsen/WBEZ)

When It Snows, Chicago Police Ticket Minority Communities More

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Drivers and property owners in just a few South Side neighborhoods get hit with a disproportionate number of winter-related tickets.

That’s the finding of a WBEZ analysis of city data, which also indicates that some of the weather-related ticketing done by cops may run askance of the city’s snow plan and the Chicago Police Department’s directives. 

Three city departments can issue tickets related to winter weather offenses: the Department of Transportation, the Department of Streets and Sanitation, and the police department. A WBEZ analysis of the last five winters shows patterns about who gets ticketed and where:

  • Police enforcement of the “2-inch rule” for parking focuses on a few South and West side neighborhoods. 
  • It’s unclear if police have the authority to issue any of these tickets without other city officials first declaring the weather serious enough.
  • Property owners are rarely ticketed for not shoveling sidewalks and, if they are, the tickets are usually written up by the Department of Transportation. 
  • But when police officers issue tickets, they’re almost always ticketing property owners in the Englewood neighborhood. 

A spokesperson for the police department said officials were reviewing why police write up so many citations in certain neighborhoods. The spokesperson could not comment further.

What are Chicago’s winter-related tickets?

Chicago saw more than a foot of snow this weekend, according to the National Weather Service. When that happens, residents know the drill: Bundle up. Grab a shovel. Move your car. 

People who don’t play by the rules can face some pretty steep fines. Here’s a look at three types of offenses city residents should be aware of during the winter.

A tow truck removes a vehicle off the intersection of Devon Avenue and Clark Street early Sunday morning on President's Day weekend in 2017, while temperatures hit the high 60s and 70s. (Elliott Ramos/WBEZ)

The overnight parking ban

This rule affects nearly 100 miles of Chicago streets from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. between Dec. 1 and April 1. Improperly parked vehicles can be ticketed, towed, and impounded whether there is snow or not. The ban has long been questioned, as thousands of vehicles get towed every year and the main beneficiary appears to be a politically connected towing firm that makes millions from a city contract.

The 2-inch rule

On routes that include most arterial (main) streets, when there is at least 2 inches of snow on the ground, street parking is prohibited until snow removal is done. It applies year round. 

Sidewalk-shoveling tickets

'This is the city of Chicago: the greediest city ever,' said Jason, an Englewood resident who declined to give his last name, after he learned he could be ticketed for not shoveling the sidewalks near his home. (Greta Johnsen/WBEZ)

Homeowners face a $50 ticket if they don’t shovel their sidewalks. For businesses, that fine can be up to $1,000, depending on the size of the property.

How does the “2-inch rule” work?

The Department of Streets and Sanitation tows only for the overnight winter parking ban, not the “2-inch rule,” according to city data. 

Unlike sidewalk-shoveling tickets, which both CDOT and police issue tickets for, it seems only cops ticket for the “2-inch rule.”

And according to a Chicago Police Department directive, cops aren’t supposed to issue “2-inch rule” tickets unless city officials declare weather severe enough for “phase two” of the official snow plan to kick in.

“Violation Notices will not be issued for violation of the 2-inch snow parking ban until the Department is officially notified that the 2-inch snow parking ban is in effect.”

In 2016, then-Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams told WBEZ his department had never activated the “2-inch rule.” 

“We have not,” he said. “We have never towed or impounded cars for a phase two.”

When asked about coordination with the Chicago Police Department on 2-inch routes, he said, “We are not working with the police department at that particular time. We primarily enforce the 3 a.m. [to] 7 a.m. parking ban.”

Marjani Williams, a spokesperson for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, issued a statement on Monday afternoon in response to recent WBEZ inquires on the “2-inch rule” enforcement. 

“The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) activates the 2-inch parking ban during emergency snow events. In the event of an emergency snow event, DSS will give notice to residents when the ban is activated and coordinate with the Chicago Police Department to enforce it as needed.”

So, it seems police are issuing “2-inch rule” tickets without a “phase two” designation. And they do so in some areas but not others. Last year, this ad-hoc behavior resulted in Englewood being the most ticketed.

Englewood drivers received 53 tickets. In the more densely populated Lincoln Park, drivers got 23. In the Loop, just five tickets were issued.

Where did the “2-inch rule” come from?

After an epic storm in 1979, mayoral candidate Jane Byrne campaigned on a preparedness plan dubbed Snow Plan ’80. It outlined new overnight parking restrictions and routes.

The now 38-year-old plan, still enforced by the city, established 2-inch routes on every main, arterial street. It also established different levels of snow preparedness and responses. A “phase two” storm is when the city is supposed to activate the 2-inch route rules.

How do sidewalk-shoveling tickets work?

Englewood resident Jimmy Grayson shovels sidewalks Sunday on 63rd and Carpenter streets near an old Harold’s restaurant. (Greta Johnsen/WBEZ)

The city’s Department of Transportation is largely responsible for keeping sidewalks clear. When residents complain about unshoveled areas to 311, CDOT then sends inspectors, according to CDOT spokesman Michael Claffey. 

“We generally issue warnings at first – if an inspector comes back around and the sidewalk is not cleared, inspectors will typically issue a citation,” Claffey said in a statement.

This 311 data shows North Side neighborhoods filed the most complaints. Those neighborhoods also saw the fewest tickets.

Tickets for unshoveled sidewalks

South Side neighborhoods, which have significantly fewer residents, filed fewer complaints. Those neighborhoods were ticketed most.

Grayson shovels on Sunday afternoon. 'The snow’s been coming down pretty tough,' he said. 'All we can do is just keep shoveling.' (Greta Johnsen/WBEZ)

Tickets issued by CDOT appear to be mostly dispersed evenly around the city. Tickets issued by the Chicago Police Department appear to be focused on residential streets in just one neighborhood: Englewood.

In the winter of 2015-2016, Lincoln Park property owners were ticketed for snowy sidewalks twice. Englewood saw 72 tickets. Most of those were issued between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m.

Michael Williams is a lifelong Englewood resident. He was out shoveling in front of his home at 60th and Halsted streets this weekend after a heavy snowstorm. He’s never gotten one of these tickets. But the numbers still didn’t sit well with him.

“That doesn’t seem right to me,” Williams said. “There’s just as much shoveling over here as there is over there. I don’t understand why they got fewer tickets than us.”

Michael Williams, a lifelong Englewood resident, shovels out the sidewalks near his home. (Greta Johnsen/WBEZ)

By noon on Sunday, Robert Burns had been removing snow for a couple of hours near the intersection of 62nd and Morgan streets. 

“I usually get out here before it really gets bad,” Burns said. “And I got my old whatchamacallit here, my trusty snowblower.”

In Englewood, many blocks consist of family residences and small businesses interspersed with empty lots and vacant buildings. Often, properties are owned by banks or the city. 

But the data only gets as specific as the block, making it impossible to determine which exact property owners get tickets. 

Alderman Raymond Lopez (15) says one reason for the higher ticket totals in his ward might be that Chicago police in the 7th District, which encompasses Englewood and West Englewood, are ticketing absent property owners in an effort to get sidewalks clear where the population is sparse. 

“Greater Englewood has a disproportionately high amount of vacant buildings in the community, and both my office, Streets and Sanitation, the Department of Buildings and the police department work together to try and hold vacant property owners responsible for the upkeep of the properties in our communities,” Lopez said.

Burns said he was surprised to hear there aren’t more tickets issued. Many of the sidewalks surrounding him were still unshoveled Sunday afternoon. Some of the streets hadn’t been plowed yet either.

“I thought it would have been out about 500 [tickets], because if you look down the street, how many do you see shoveled? None. Except this one here, and of course the lady right there on the corner. Then you got the lots. Who comes and does the lots?” he said.

How we did this story

This story used three main sets of data to figure out how city officials ticket when there is snow on the ground (or even if there’s not!). The source data can be found here on Github.

The first was citation data for unshoveled sidewalks, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings. The citation data was anonymized by the city to the block level, making it impossible to find out which homes were specifically ticketed, but still allows for an analysis by police district and by community area. 

Those tickets were geo-coded to block-level and split apart by a winter season, which we have decided would be any tickets or complaints from November of one year until April of the following year.

The next set of data was complaint data for unshoveled sidewalks obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the city’s 311 Department. The data came attached with specific addresses and geolocations. That data were split up by winter seasons, and counted by community areas for the past five years.

The last set of data was parking tickets obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the city’s Finance Department. Sifting through millions of tickets, we isolated the data to tickets with the violation description matching “SNOW ROUTE: 2” OF SNOW OR MORE” or Violation Code: 964070. We corrected misspelled street names, and geocoded the tickets using the Data Science Toolkit. Those tickets were then split up by winter seasons, and analyzed by community area and police district.

Elliott Ramos is a digital editor and does data reporting for WBEZ. Greta Johnsen is a reporter and host for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter at @ChicagoEl and @gretamjohnsen.

Correction: An original version of this story stated that Robert Burns had been removing snow for five hours. Burns was not removing snow for that amount of time. This story has been updated.