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Local Police Visit Virtual Town Hall To Discuss Racial Bias in Traffic Stops

 Linda Foster, president of the NAACP's Bloomington-Normal chapter, speaks about racial bias in traffic stops, as part of the NAACP's virtual town hall Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021.
Linda Foster, president of the NAACP's Bloomington-Normal chapter, speaks about racial bias in traffic stops, as part of the NAACP's virtual town hall on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021.

Twin City Black leaders invited local police to a virtual town hall Thursday evening to jump start a community conversation about yet another report showing central Illinois police stop Black motorists far more frequently than they stop white drivers.

The Bloomington-Normal chapter of the NAACP hosted the 90-minute meeting. Top police from Normal, Bloomington, McLean County, and Illinois State University fielded questions. The group announced Thursday these collaborative town halls now will meet quarterly to foster that dialogue.

“So that we can get to that juncture where everyone can feel that (local police) are here to serve and protect us,” said Carla Campbell-Jackson, vice president of the Twin Cities' NAACP chapter.

During the event, about 60 Zoom attendees discussed traffic stops, sometimes recounting problems they’d personally encountered. They also asked local police about a Illinois Department of Transportation report, released just a few weeks ago. That report's findings show Black drivers and pedestrians in Illinois are three times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts.

Twin City numbers are even more discouraging: In Bloomington, Black drivers and pedestrians were 6.2 times more likely than whites to be stopped, and in Normal, 4.4 times more likely. Both figures are an increase from the previous year’s report.

Police on Thursday said each of the four B-N agencies do take implicit bias seriously. But the police chiefs also said the report's data is complicated and needs closer attention.

“The data provided by the state is helpful. But it doesn’t tell the whole story” and at times isn’t representative of the real situation, said Normal Chief Rick Bleichner. In addition to the annual state report, NPD also looks at internal factors such as citizen complaints, early intervention, and review of body camera recordings, he said. The other three officers said similar things of their departments' approach.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage also raised the question of how interstate traffic might skew the statistics, while Bloomington Interim Chief Chad Wamsley said often a night traffic stop doesn't even allow an officer to know race prior to the stop.

Using just statistical data sometimes can be misleading, added Aaron Woodruff, who heads ISU's police department. For example, he doesn’t make many traffic stops in his current role. So percentages for a particular officer may be skewed.

Linda Foster, local NAACP president, said it's good to analyze the annual report. But the community, Black residents in particular, are weary of yearly IDOT reports showing the same trends.

“Let’s not wait” to start addressing the problem, she said. “We also need to make sure we are coming up with solutions.”

During Thursday’s town hall, several Black residents shared negative traffic stop experiences. Sheila Harris recounted multiple police vehicles responding one night, when she was pulled over for a burned out turn signal. Vera Traver described a male police officer searching her as being degrading, and Eddie Tharb said while a New York City incident involving a black bird watcher got national attention, he had a similar experience here.

“We are still, in 2021, receiving complaints about improper searches and how people feel totally violated,” Campbell-Jackson said, directing her comments.

Other attendees directed questions to police about why the traffic stop ratios continue to be so high, what local agencies are doing to change the ratio and whether officers are held accountable for racial bias, among other topics.

Police said while implicit bias exists in policing, as it does throughout society, addressing it in law enforcement is an active effort. Wamsley, and the other chiefs, noted local agencies train officers about bias.

But attendee Willie Halbert asked about accountability.

“As these stops are being made, are there any patterns?” she asked. “You can teach and train someone, but the actual practice is the concern,” she said.

“I’m just hoping that this dialogue tonight — you’re hearing from the community what their issues and concerns are, and their perception,” said Halbert. Whether it's reality or not, she hopes the town hall can help police look at this data with a fresh outlook, and find possible resolutions.

Attendee Toy Beasley said he feels like local police only engage with Black residents when there is a problem. Instead, he said police should be building year-round relationships with the Black community.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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