Racial disparity in Urbana police traffic stops highest in 10 years

You are currently viewing Racial disparity in Urbana police traffic stops highest in 10 yearsDarrell Hoemann
The window for the Urbana Police Department office inside the Urbana City Hall on Thursday, September 4, 2014. photo by Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

The ratio of nonwhite to white drivers involved in traffic stops in Urbana hit a 10-year high in 2022 — for every 10 white drivers stopped by police, over 15 nonwhite drivers were stopped by police.

The ratio has significantly increased over the last four years amidst nationwide calls for police reform and a recent spotlight on police misconduct in the Champaign and Urbana area. Ricardo Diaz, who currently serves as the chair of Urbana’s Civilian Police Review Board, said bias in police activity is something minorities are aware of and plays into existing fears of police encounters.

“It’s a credible fear born out by experience,” Diaz said. “I grew up with that in my mind — that I was a likely target. I don’t think of it in terms of white and brown. All I know is that I’m part of the target.”

Data shows there have been just over 28,000 traffic stops since 2013 in Urbana. When a police officer conducts a traffic stop in Illinois, they are required to fill out a form with details of the incident, including demographic information about the driver and details of the encounter, such as the reason for the stop and whether the vehicle was searched.

The dataset is publicly available on Urbana’s open data website. The ratio is represented as the number of nonwhite drivers divided by the number of white drivers. Ten years ago, the ratio was 0.82, meaning more white drivers were stopped than nonwhite drivers. Today, that ratio is 1.55, showing a dramatic increase in nonwhite drivers being stopped.

Urbana Interim Chief of Police Richard Surles said the Urbana Police Department is aware of racial disparities in traffic stops and has delivered several presentations to the Urbana City Council on the subject.

“The most recent presentation featured data suggesting a disparity in stop rates, but it also revealed concentrated calls for service in certain locations where traffic stops occurred more frequently,” Surles said in an email. “These areas are typically where officers are predominantly positioned.” 

CU-CitizenAccess considered Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American drivers nonwhite in this analysis; however, Black drivers made up the majority of the nonwhite group in all years analyzed.

In 2020, 2021 and 2022 the total number of traffic stops was significantly less than in previous years. Overall, the total number of traffic stops each year decreased 69% in the past decade, falling from 4,282 in 2013 to 1,319 in 2022. CU-CitizenAccess contacted the listed dataset owner about this and did not receive a response.

The mandated collection of traffic stop data in Illinois goes back to 2003, when members of the legislature — led by Barack Obama, when he was a member of the Illinois Senate — passed the Illinois Traffic Stop Statistical Study Act to gain insight into the activities of law enforcement.

The study's 2022 annual report for Illinois said there were just over 2 million traffic stops across the state. White people made up 47% of all stops, just under 1 million. Black people made up 31% of stops and Hispanic people made up 19%. All other races tracked by Illinois made up less than 5% of stops.

The Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Statistical Study Act is now permanently in place and was amended to mandate the collection of pedestrian stop data as well.

Urbana police: Bias isn’t reflected in all the details

The Illinois Department of Transportation defines traffic stops as events “when an officer stops a motor vehicle for a violation of the Illinois Vehicle code, or for a local traffic violation.”

The number of drivers of each race that were involved in traffic stops over the last ten years have decreased overall, but the proportion of white drivers stopped fell over time. While “Hispanic” is technically an ethnicity, Hispanic drivers were given their own category in the dataset. 

Surles said the police department examination of the details of the stops, including ticketing rates and the “veil of darkness” metric, did not suggest racial bias.

“The rate of stops by officers remained consistent throughout the day and night, regardless of when officers could potentially discern the driver's race,” Surles said.

Diaz said the review board has started tracking the number of complaints by police officer to detect potential racial bias in general police activity. He also noted that the new police chief has emphasized transparency. 

“The police department needs to pay attention to it,” Diaz said. “But it is unsatisfactory to say, ‘we don't know why.’”

Previous attempts to address issues fell flat

In 2014, the City of Urbana appointed a task force to examine racial disparities revealed by the IDOT traffic stop data.  

The task force concluded that Black drivers were stopped disproportionately and that stops involving Black and Hispanic drivers had disproportionately negative outcomes, according to its final presentation to the Urbana City Council. By the end of 2015, the task force was disbanded.

According to a CU-CitizenAccess analysis of the dataset, it is uncommon for police officers to request to search the stopped vehicle. Police officers requested to search the vehicle in only 0.7% of all incidents from 2013 to 2022. Drivers have the option to grant or deny this request.

But, each year, Urbana police requested to search the cars of a higher percentage of nonwhite drivers than white drivers.

“We found in large part that some disparities were caused specifically by police procedures, for instance, hotspot policing and being in certain areas,” Pete Resnick, who chaired the task force, said in an interview. “But we also found that there was some disparity in the numbers that was unexplainable by those different metrics.”

Despite the task force’s warning that continued engagement and monitoring of the issue was necessary, racial disparities in traffic stops saw dramatic increases.

Resnick said one of the task force’s recommendations — to collect data on the initial reason for the police encounter — has been consistently implemented by the Urbana police. 

He said he doesn’t know which other task force recommendations the department follows, but that implementing more would “do nothing but help” reduce disparities in the numbers and impact of traffic stops.

Part of a larger issue

Unfair treatment of people of color by police has been highlighted in recent years, both in the Champaign-Urbana area and nationwide. In 2020, the death of George Floyd brought these issues to the forefront of public consciousness, culminating in a series of protests across the world, including in Urbana.

Since then, journalists, citizens and activists in the area have continued to give special attention to local police departments.

Racial disparities in the traffic stop data have been analyzed and documented by other news outlets in previous years. In 2018, Illinois Public Media reported a reduction in racial disparities — a trend that, according to the data, didn’t last. 

While the IDOT Traffic Stop Data Task Force was temporary, the city of established the permanent Civilian Police Review Board that has served to review citizen complaints about the city police since 2011. According to the Board’s website, the board consists of a maximum of seven volunteer members with diverse backgrounds. 

Diaz, the chair of the board, noted racial disparities in traffic stops are seen in many communities across Illinois, not just in Urbana. 

“It's common knowledge,” Diaz said. “If you're brown, you prep your kids for it, you prep yourself for it.”

According to Diaz, the review board does not have power to question, discipline or sanction officers. However, they can call attention to issues and make policy recommendations to the police department.

Resnick said examining traffic stop data again is worth the city’s attention. 

“I would certainly commit the resources for doing the kinds of statistical analysis that we had done, for the City Council to take up some of the kinds of work that we had recommended, and for the police department to take up that kind of work to see if we can do more to address it,” Resnick said.

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