Study Shows Wide Disparity In Traffic Stops By Race In Bloomington-Normal
New data show Black drivers and pedestrians in Illinois are close to three times more likely than whites to be stopped by police.
The disparity in Bloomington-Normal is even greater — and the gap widened last year, according to a study by the Illinois Department of Transportation.
The disparity alarms civil rights advocates. Police officials say the numbers point to societal concerns that go beyond policing.
In Bloomington, Black drivers and pedestrians were 6.2 times more likely than whites to be stopped.
Interim police chief Greg Scott says the size of that disparity surprised him.
“That number is concerning,” Scott said. “I would just encourage people to dig a little but deeper and think of different reasons that may be, and I’m not going to tell you it’s not possible, that it’s implicit bias. It’s possible, and we will be vigilant to watch out for that.”
The ratio was about 4-to-1 in traffic stops — Blacks to whites in Bloomington in 2019. Scott suggested the COVID pandemic likely widened the disparity because more middle and upper-income workers stayed off the roads and worked from home, an option many essential workers didn't have.
“You think of the service industry, labor-intensive industries and those are sometimes more diverse population that work in those particular industries,” Scott said.
Police in Normal also saw a wide disparity in stops by race last year. There, Black motorists and pedestrians were 4.4 times more likely than whites to be pulled over. That's also up from 2019.
Police Chief Rick Bleichner said COVID makes for unreliable data because police spent less time on traffic enforcement to limit officer contact with the public. He said officers in Normal spent more time on investigations involving guns, gangs and drugs.
“A lot of times when we look at the data on violent crime over the last couple years, whether it’s homicides or armed robberies and things like that, it is a higher percentage that comes down to some in the minority community,” Bleichner said. “I think that’s a broader community discussion to have.”
Bleichner said he doesn't see inherent bias within his department, maintaining there's a flaw in the data and the study's authors admit to limitations in determining the number of people in a certain police jurisdiction. For example, communities with multiple interstates likely have a greater percentage of drivers from outside that jurisdiction passing through. That can change the racial makeup.
Bleichner noted nearly half of the people Normal PD stopped last year live outside of McLean County.
Illinois' population is more diverse than McLean County's. About 15% of Illinois' population is Black. In Normal, it's close to 11%.
But civil rights advocates say no matter how you splice the data, it's troubling.
Rachel Murphy, an attorney with ACLU Illinois, said the traffic stop data has been compiled for 15 years and every year it shows disparities by race. Murphy said police departments need to dig into their own data to better understand the disparities.
“It can be so useful in remedying racial disparities and repairing relationships with communities,” Murphy said. “That is really important and really needed, especially after what we have all gone through and continue to go through as a country since last summer.”
Bleichner shares some of his department’s data. He said Black motorists were slightly less likely to get a citation (45% to 48%) in 2020, but were more likely to get a verbal warning (12% to 8.4%)
Murphy said even if a Black motorist is pulled over and gets off with a warning, there's still harm done.
“To have to be pulled over and stopped, your day is interrupted, you are subjected to the uncertainty of what’s going to happen, trying to make sure you do everything right; to live with that and be subjected to that over and over and over and over, that’s really harmful,” she said.
The Bloomington Police Department doesn't track data on traffic stop outcomes, but Scott said police officers do more patrols in higher-crime areas and some of those areas have a higher concentration of minorities.
Murphy said that's a common police response, but it doesn't fully explain the disparity.
“It’s not just that officers were going into majority-Black neighborhoods and that’s why more Black people were being stopped by police. It’s that in any neighborhood that police were in, they were still stopping Black people at higher rates than white people,” Murphy said.
Bloomington and Normal police leaders both said they don't see inherent bias among their officers, but NPD's Bleichner said they must watch for trends in case they tell a different story.
“I think there’s always going to be bias. Everybody brings bias, the key is trying to identify that and then understand that you can’t act on that, especially as it relates to explicit bias,” Bleichner said.
Scott said his officers periodically undergo mandatory cultural sensitivity training, adding officers now get the training while at the police academy.
Both Bloomington and Normal police chiefs said hiring a more diverse workforce also will help,and said they have been working on that.
Normal's police force is 90% white. Bloomington Police has one officer out of 121 who identifies as Black. The department has seven officers who identify as Hispanic. Scott said four of those were hired within the last 18 months.
Bloomington Police received 22 public complaints last year. Several could be described as "driving while Black" allegations. One such case went to the citizen's review board that handles unresolved complaints. The Public Safety and Community Relations Board found no officer wrongdoing.
Normal Police say they received six citizen complaints last year.