Report points to racial profiling in Illinois

By Bethany Krajelis, The Southern

CHICAGO - A state report showing that minority drivers were three times more likely than Caucasian drivers to have their vehicle searched was released this week, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois to urge state officials to ban consent searches.

The Illinois Racial Profiling Study, which started in 2004 to determine what extent race plays in traffic stops and searches, showed that out of all the traffic stops in 2006, police officers asked .68 percent of Caucasian drivers for consent to search compared to 2.04 percent of minority drivers.

Advertising Info
The report, which was prepared by Northwestern University Center for Public Safety, is based on 2006 data that the Illinois Department of Transportation collected from 974 law enforcement agencies throughout the state.

While state statistics show minorities are more likely than Caucasians to have their cars searched, the numbers for some Southern Illinois law enforcement agencies show otherwise.

For instance, the report showed that Carbondale Police stopped 1,821 Caucasian drivers and 924 minority drivers in 2006. Out of those traffic stops, police asked 28 Caucasian drivers and nine minority drivers for consent to search. That breaks down to police searching 1.54 percent of Caucasians and .98 percent of minorities who were stopped in Carbondale.

Carbondale Police Chief Bob Ledbetter said his department doesn't "go out looking for the offender based on race or ethnicity."

"It's what triggers the stop in the first place," he said, referring to a speeding or broken tail light violation.

Murphysboro Police Sgt. Brian Brewer mirrored Ledbetter's sentiments.

"It doesn't matter what race the driver is," he said. "We're not in the business of discrimination. We're in the business of law enforcement."

The report, however, shows Murphysboro Police stopped 1,990 Caucasian drivers and 530 minority drivers last year. They asked 10 or .5 percent of Caucasian drivers and five or 9.4 percent of minority drivers for consent to search. That means that police asked .5 percent of Caucasians drivers for consent to search, compared to 9.4 percent of minorities.

Some Southern Illinois cities, like Herrin, Jonesboro, Pinckneyville and Benton, did not ask any of the minority drivers they stopped for consent to search. In some cases, however, police requested consent from Caucasian drivers.

The Illinois State Police, which has districts throughout the state, pulled over 337,529 Caucasian drivers and 122,204 minority drivers last year. They asked .54-percent of the Caucasian drivers for consent to search their cars compared to 1.25 percent of the minority drivers.

Illinois State Police Lt. Scott Compton said people need to look at the "totality of the circumstances" before drawing conclusions. For instance, he said the state police pulled over more than half of a million drivers last year and only used consent searches in about 1 percent of those traffic stops.

"We could understand why the public would ask questions" about racial profiling, Compton said. The state police feel a ban on consent searches "would be an overreaction," he added.

Wendy Park, a staff attorney for ACLU in Illinois, said her organization has analyzed data since the study began three years ago and the reports show there is a need for a ban on consent searches.

"What we have found is there is a pattern of racial discrimination in theses stops and searches," she said. "This is not just a big city issue. This is the state police � who operate in every corner in the state of Illinois."

Park said if police believe consent searches are a valuable tool, the state should require police officers to have reasonable suspicion before requesting a search. She cited California as one state that does not conduct consent searches and said that Rhode Island and Maryland require reasonable suspicion.

"A consent search is a very humiliating experience," Park said. "When you're pulled over on the side of the road, it's embarrassing to be singled out that way. It's a scary situation for people to be subjected to that."

539-5454 ext. 5138