A new study from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) finds that Chicago residents were stopped by police at a rate four times the amount of New York City residents at the height of the East Coast city’s controversial stop and frisk practice, when comparing stops to population. What’s more, the stops were disproportionately focused on Chicagoans of color.
Police officers are allowed under the U.S. Constitution (Terry v. Ohio, 1968) to stop people if they have reasonable suspicion that the individuals, have been, or are about to be engaged in something criminal. Once someone has been stopped by an officer, the officer can frisk them if they have reasonable suspicion that they are dangerous and have a weapon.
Frisking, of course, often includes someone being ordered to put their hands up on something (say, a nearby wall or car), while an officer runs their hands over their body. It doesn’t seem fun.
The practice is a tool for police officers to catch dangerous criminals in the act of illegal activity. However, the ACLU reports that last summer there were over 250,000 police stops that did not lead to an arrest.
Of those stops, black residents were subject to 72% of them, despite being only 32% of Chicago’s population. Many of those stops came in majority black police districts, however black folks were targeted pointedly by Chicago police no matter where they happened to be walking in town.
For example, black folks accounted for 15% of all stop-and-frisks in the Jefferson Park area, where the population is about 1% African American. All this makes sense, of course, because the black neighborhoods are more dangerous, filled with more dangerous people, quite likely to commit crimes.
And, as far as white neighborhoods like Jefferson Park, well, if they don’t live there, why were those black folks even there? Probably to do crime.
The preceding doesn’t just sound offensive and racist, there is also no reason to believe that it is leading to effective and efficient crime catching or prevention. As mentioned above, 250,000 police stops last summer did not even lead to an arrest, to say nothing of convictions for actual crimes.
That’s a whole lot of swinging and missing with regards to a very intrusive and humiliating police practice. It would be wonderful to know how many police stops resulted in arrest, conviction or confiscated illegal weapons.
Unfortunately, unlike New York City, Chicago doesn’t keep those kinds of records. In New York, frisk data shows that weapons were found in just 2% of frisks.
The ACLU report says that in NYC, 88% of persons stopped by police were not arrested or issued summons. In other words, nearly 90% of people were stopped by police in public for what amounted to no reason at all.
In Chicago, it is anyone’s guess. Because the city only records data about police stops where there are no arrests or charges, the percentage of innocent people stopped can’t be measured.
Perhaps even more troubling, the ACLU report says that officers aren’t doing a very good job of recording the little information that they are required to.
“Although officers are required to write down the reasons for stops, in nearly half of the stops we reviewed,” it reads, “officers either gave an unlawful reason for the stop or failed to provide enough information to justify the stop.”
All this paints a picture of a police department handing down directives to target black people for stops and searches, for often dubious reasons, with little to show in the way of results, and improper recording of resulting data. Sounds like a big waste of time and money.
And, oh yeah, possibly unconstitutional. For those of you who are in to that type of thing.
The ACLU report included a four-point recommendation, much of which seems like common sense.
1 – Collect data on frisks and make it public
Officers are not currently required to record when they frisk someone. If they do so and there isn’t an arrest, these searches are not subject to judicial review, the report reads. Without a record, police supervisors, and the public, have no way to determine if an officer’s search is lawful. The ACLU suggests an expansion of the Illinois Traffic Stop Statistical Study Act, which currently requires police to collect and make public data about traffic stops.
2 – Collect data on all stops and make it public
The report recommends that information about all stops, not just those which don’t result in arrests, be kept and made publicly available to give police departments (and the public) tools to evaluate efficacy and legality of practices.
3 – Require training
Since the ACLU’s report showed that half of reviewed stops were done without proper legal justification, more officer training is necessary. Makes sense.
4 – Require officers to issue a receipt of essentially all civilian encounters
They recommend that such receipts include the officer’s name, the time and place of the encounter, as well as the reason for the encounter. Again, a more full and appropriate record of events not just for civilian protection, but also to help police departments keep better track of what they are doing, why, and how it all went down.
Both police officers and civilians clearly need more and better tools at their disposal in interactions with one another. And the public deserves more data about how their tax dollars are being spent.
Policing is important, dangerous and difficult. It seems high time that Chicago police officers spend less time spinning their wheels in the direction of practices which discriminate disproportionately against certain races and produce little crime-catching or prevention results.