Police combat racial profiling

By Gus Bode

Officers work to comply with state law

The percentage of minorities stopped for traffic violations may not match the percentage of minorities living in the community, but that isn’t necessarily evidence of racial profiling, said Alex Weiss, Northwestern University’s director of public safety.

An effort has to be made to determine who is driving in the community, not just who lives there, Weiss said.


Weiss made his remarks Tuesday at a training session conducted by the Southern Illinois Criminal Justice Training Program at John A. Logan College.

Law enforcement agencies across Illinois are collecting racial data from traffic stops to comply with a state law designed to eliminate racial profiling.

Amnesty International issued a report Monday that found racial profiling by law enforcement and airport security to be on the rise since 9/11. According to the report, racial profiling harms national security by distracting police officers and wasting resources.

The Illinois Traffic Stop Statistics Act requires law enforcement agencies to annually submit data to the Illinois Department of Transportation on the race of motorists stopped by police officers throughout the year. The law went into effect Jan. 1.

The data will be analyzed by the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety to determine whether race improperly influences a police officer’s decision to make a traffic stop. Beginning in 2005, IDOT will issue an annual report based on the data.

In fact, the Northwestern center has provided police with information on what the expected percentage of various racial groups should be on roadways around the state. Weiss said those benchmarks give police a tool for comparing the racial make-up of their traffic stops with information on who is using the roadways.

The law requires the data to be classified in one of five racial categories:Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Native American/Alaska Native or Asian/Pacific Islander. There is no multiracial category.


Weiss said those categories don’t correspond to the racial categories recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau. The census asks people to classify themselves as Hispanic or non-Hispanic in addition to their race. He said Northwestern merged people who identified themselves as Hispanic with other categories. Those who are multiracial, but not Hispanic were simply excluded, Weiss said.

Laimutis Nargelenas, manager of governmental relations and training for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said many law enforcement organizations were concerned that racial data being gathered would be used to sue police officers. The law in its final form had the support of the IACP, as well as the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police and the Illinois Sheriffs Association, Nargelenas said.

“We’re against any type of biased enforcement,” Nargelenas said. “There are a lot of problems associated with collecting this type of data, but if you have profiling going on in your department and you aren’t doing anything about it, maybe you should be sued.”

Shift supervisors should be able to detect profiling within a department, Nargelenas said.

Weiss said good documentation is essential.

“Some chiefs say, ‘I know we’re not doing this, but we don’t have any data.’ To me, that’s an untenable position,” Weiss said.

Allen Bennett, director of governmental relations for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, said some smaller law enforcement agencies might find the law troublesome, especially those without computers.

“We’re in the process of trying to find out if the law is working,” Bennett said. “We don’t want to hinder law enforcement in any way.”

About 50 of the 1,048 registered law enforcement agencies had not yet submitted any data, said Tom Kelso, bureau chief of safety data and data services at IDOT.

The law requires all data for 2004 to be submitted by March 1, 2005. The law provides no penalty for failing to submit data.

Carbondale Police Chief Steve Odum said the department might work with the Human Resources Commission and community groups to educate the community on efforts to end racial profiling.

Weiss said law enforcement agencies should work with communities concerned about racial profiling and prepare them for the release of the reports.

“The more dialogue there is about this, the better,” he said.