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Black and Latino drivers in Chicago challenge CPD’s discriminatory traffic stop policies

Five Black and Latino Chicagoans subjected to repeated traffic stops filed a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of a class of Black and Latino drivers against the Chicago Police Department late Monday, June 26, 2023. The lawsuit alleges that CPD officers are more likely to pull over Black and Latino drivers than white drivers, and that this disparity cannot be justified either by public or traffic safety. The complaint alleges that the racial and ethnic disparities in CPD’s traffic stops are due to CPD policies requiring officers to satisfy traffic stop quotas and flood neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of the City with traffic stops for alleged minor equipment and registration violations, as confirmed by statistical evidence and public statements from CPD and City officials.

Data presented in the complaint shows that CPD’s mass traffic stop program, which ramped up under the administrations of former Mayors Lori Lightfoot and Rahm Emanuel, has not decreased serious crime in Chicago. As reflected by the experiences of the five Chicago residents, the complaint alleges that, through its mass traffic stop program, CPD harasses, racially profiles, and demeans hundreds of thousands of law-abiding community members of color who are simply trying to go about their day; in doing so, it undermines public confidence in CPD and wastes public resources, which in turn undermines public safety.

The lawsuit filed Monday asks a federal court to prohibit CPD from targeting predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods for a high volume of traffic stops, bar the use of traffic stops as simply an excuse to search for contraband like weapons or drugs, and end traffic stop quotas, among other requests.

“As a community organizer working to improve relations between police and community members, it is clear that CPD’s practice of targeting Black drivers with traffic stops increases tension and anger between Black people and the police. It makes people of color feel like we’re not free to travel in our own neighborhoods,” said Eric Wilkins, a Black resident of the Roseland neighborhood on the City’s Far South Side, and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Wilkins has been stopped repeatedly by Chicago police over many years.

“As a careful and conscientious driver, it is obvious that I have been stopped based on police officers’ false stereotypes about young Black men rather than for any legitimate reason,” said plaintiff Mahari Bell, a Black veteran of the Illinois Army National Guard who resides in the South Shore neighborhood. As alleged in the complaint, Mr. Bell has been stopped at least 10 times in the last eight years without a single citation being issued.

The complaint alleges that on one occasion in May 2022, Mr. Bell was stopped near Chicago’s Willis Tower while driving for a food delivery service. Officers approached his car and immediately demanded to know if Mr. Bell possessed any cannabis. Mr. Bell said no, but the officers ordered him out of the car. As Mr. Bell complied, they handcuffed him with his hands behind his back, telling Mr. Bell that handcuffing drivers is “what we do.” An officer then searched through Mr. Bell’s car and his possessions without his permission and without any legal basis. As onlookers on the busy downtown street watched, an officer reached into Mr. Bell’s pants, took his wallet, and ran his name through their computers. He was then released from the handcuffs and told he could go on his way.

“It was humiliating and degrading to be treated like a criminal in front of countless people on that street corner,” added Mr. Bell. “There was absolutely no reason for this frustrating stop, let alone for humiliating me while I was at work.”

Jacquez Beasley, a Black resident of the city’s West Side and an employee of the Chicago Park District, experienced a similarly embarrassing and degrading traffic stop in January 2023. As alleged in the complaint, CPD officers pulled Mr. Beasley over after he turned into the parking lot of his own workplace; with his work supervisor watching, officers interrogated Mr. Beasley as if he were a criminal suspect before telling him to go on his way.

“I have been pulled over at least 12 times since I got my driver’s license in 2020,” said Mr. Beasley. “I feel that officers see me – a young Black man with dreadlocks – and immediately assume I’m suspicious, even though I have no record and I’ve never gotten a traffic ticket or even a warning.”

The complaint alleges these experiences are typical of the experiences of hundreds of Black and Latino people who are subjected to traffic stops by CPD officers every day. The data presented in the complaint shows that since 2016, Black drivers in Chicago have been 4 to 7 times more likely than white drivers to be stopped by police; Latino drivers have been twice as likely to be stopped as white drivers. The data presented also shows Chicago police are also far more likely to search Black and Latino drivers and their vehicles, even though the police often have higher rates of finding illegal contraband in the vehicles of white drivers.

The complaint collects admissions from past CPD leadership  that CPD intentionally targets traffic stops in neighborhoods on the West and South Sides where mostly Black and Latino people reside. The statistical analysis and other evidence presented in the complaint also demonstrate that claims by CPD leaders that CPD uses traffic stops in “high crime” areas to address violence, are not true. The City’s Inspector General has found that CPD is more likely to concentrate traffic stops in neighborhoods with a predominance of Black residents than in neighborhoods experiencing the most violence.

“Being stopped repeatedly has made me fearful of the police,” said Essence Jefferson, a Black, full-time student who lives on the city’s South Side with her young son. “I’m afraid to drive with my son in the car for fear of what might happen to us.” As the complaint alleges, Ms. Jefferson has been stopped at least 14 times since 2018.

José Manuel Almanza, Jr., a Latino resident of the city’s West Side and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, stated, “In just the past 2 years, I have been stopped more than 10 times by Chicago police while driving in the city. Many of these stops have been frightening – with police officers approaching my car with a hand on their weapons. I think the officers see a brown man driving on the West Side and they assume I’m up to no good, but I’m just trying to go about my life like everyone else.”

“The experiences of these five drivers demonstrate how policies by the City and the CPD have sown fear and distrust among Black and Latino residents,” said Alexandra Block, senior supervising attorney at the ACLU of Illinois. “CPD’s past leadership never has shown that targeting Black and Latino drivers, and neighborhoods where Black and Latino people live, for massive numbers of pretextual traffic stops makes the City safer. It does not.”

“We are hoping new leadership in City Hall and at CPD will provide an opportunity to turn the page on this practice,” added Block.

“The data presented in the complaint could not be clearer that Black and Latino drivers have been stopped far more than White drivers and that CPD’s traffic stop initiative has not meaningfully reduced crime,” said John A. Freedman, Senior Pro Bono Counsel at Arnold & Porter. “We are proud to stand with our clients and co-counsel to vindicate these important rights.”

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