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Bloomington PD policy change reduces racial disparity in traffic stops

Bloomington Police car
WGLT file photo
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Bloomington's new police chief says the department has greatly reduced racial disparities in traffic stops by making a few simple changes.

Bloomington police say they have greatly reduced racial disparities in traffic stops by shifting focus and using real-time data.

Jamal Simington, who started as Bloomington Police Chief on Oct. 1, said in the last three weeks officers have shifted more traffic enforcement to high-traffic areas.

“We are not only focusing on high crime areas,” Simington said. “High crime areas tend to be in areas where minorities reside, so we are expanding getting back to sufficient traffic enforcement through the city, especially those high-crash areas.”

Bloomington Public Safety and Community Relations Board meeting
Eric Stock
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WGLT
Bloomington Assistant Police Chief Chad Walmsley (left), Bloomington Police Chief Jamal Simington (center) and PSCRB member Jeffery Woodard listen during a PSCRB meeting Thursday at the Government Center in Bloomington.

Simington took over the department weeks after an Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) study showed Black drivers were six times more likely than white drivers to be pulled over by police in 2020. The statewide trend was nearly 3-to-1.

Bloomington’s civilian police review panel, the Public Safety and Community Relations Board (PSCRB), has discussed ways to address the disparity. Simington outlined the department’s strategic shift in focus at a PSCRB meeting on Thursday.

He said since BPD shifted more patrols to high-crash areas, the rate of Black drivers stopped dropped from 37% to 13%. According to 2020 Census data, 11% of the city’s population is Black and 18% of the city identifies as Black or multiracial.

Simington added the department also has started to use new software to track traffic stop data in real time. He said that enables the department to respond to trends more quickly than before. “The information lived in a database that no one had the ability to look at in real time,” he said. “The department would wait for the report to be sent to the Illinois Department of Transportation … that following year.”

Simington said the real-time data helps supervisors catch disparities and better train officers.

He told the PSCRB much of police work involves relying on intelligence and following up on tips to stop crime and he doesn’t think the departmental shift will impact crime fighting efforts.

“We will do our best to keep our focus where it’s needed appropriately, to be mindful of the violent crime to keep it down and that’s all a part of the constant communication (with the public),” Simington said.

PSCRB chair Ashley Farmer said she's encouraged to see less disparity in traffic stops by race, but she'd like to see whether the trend continues. Farmer recommended Bloomington explore Urbana’s Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP) as a model to reduce racial disparities.

“They moved into certain areas where traffic crashes were happening and just focused on those areas,” Farmer said. “It seemed here they are still focused all over Bloomington and are still doing investigatory stops, they are still doing pre-textual stops unlike some of these other plans that have been implemented where they are moving away from that.”

Some cities have banned stops in which drivers are stopped for minor offenses as an excuse to get a closer look and potentially find other violations. Critics say pretext stops contribute to racial disparities. The data on racial disparities and the subsequent discussion brought out several leaders in the racial justice movement.

Linda Foster, president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP, criticized Bloomington Police for focusing more of their patrols in mostly Black neighborhoods.

“If you’re in a Black neighborhood, that’s not neutral,” Foster told Simington and the PSCRB during public comment.

Mike Matejka, with Bloomington-Normal Not In Our Town, expressed support for STEP and indicated he appreciated Urbana’s acknowledgment that its racial disparities in traffic stops stems largely from police focus in lower-income areas.

"Oftentimes officers are accused of being racist,” Matejka said. “It was the system of making stops that was racially biased, not the individual officer.”

Bloomington City Council member Mollie Ward said during public comment that racial disparities should concern more than just minorities. She said when police devote more resources to minority neighborhoods, it can make other parts of the community less safe.

“If the police attention is on frivolous stuff on the west side, guess what? Those accidents are going to be happening and happening and happening on the east side,” Ward said. She said police should not only focus more attention on areas where there are a high volume of crashes, they should also patrol areas where there are frequent near misses.

Ward recommended police use more security cameras in parts of the community where additional police presence is needed. She said cameras also can remove inherent bias because they can provide more definitive evidence.

Simington said he will provide the PSCRB with updated data on traffic stops in the future to demonstrate whether the traffic stop trend continues, adding he expects the department will continue to see traffic stops that better reflect the general population.

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