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Traffic Stops Up In Normal Under Mandatory Enforcement Policy

Emma Shores/WGLT

Traffic stops in Normal have increased dramatically since the police department began a policy requiring officers to have a minimum off two contacts with citizens during each shift.

Police made 19,637 traffic stops last year compared to 12,961 in 2014 -- an increase of 51 percent.

That amounts to an additional 21 stops a day, according to Illinois State University Criminal Justice Professor Michael Gizzi, who analyzed the traffic stop data.

By contrast, traffic stops in Bloomington, which has a larger population than Normal, declined in 2015 to 9,740 from 10,450 in 2014.

Normal's policy requiring officers to have a minimum number of contacts per shift with citizens, including making traffic stops and writing ordinance violations, went into effect in January 2015. Initially, Police Chief Rick Bleichner required officers to have three contacts with citizens, but after about nine months, Bleichner said he decided to reduce the goal to two contacts.

"Stops certainly were going up, but the quality of the stops were down a little bit," Bleichner said during GLT's Sound Ideas.

"When I looked at the balance across the shifts, three (stops) was a little bit steep. We felt two was a bit more reasonable. An officer out there who works eight hours, in their course of their patrol could find two violations to stop," he said.

Bleichner said the minimum two-stop requirement may not be possible on each shift. He described it as a tool for measuring officers' performance, and insisted the policy does not reflect a traffic ticket quota, which is illegal in Illinois.

Bleichner said he sought legal counsel in reviewing the code on quotas and also conferred with the police union.

He quoted a portion of the code which states, "nothing in this section shall prohibit a municipality from evaluating a police officer based on the police officer's points of contact" with citizens "in the furtherance of their duties."

Gizzi called the Normal policy an attempt to circumvent the prohibition of traffic ticket quotas. 

"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck," he said.

A group of police officers sued the Normal department a few years ago, complaining that they were being evaluated on the basis of ticket quotas that were difficult to meet on their particular shifts. The suit was dismissed. 

Gizzi said he was "shocked" by Normal's 2015 data, which shows a marked departure from the number of stops in previous years. In the four years prior to  2015, the police department averaged about 11,800 traffic stops a year.

There is some good news, though, for motorists pulled over in Normal. The vast majority stopped for violations (about 65 percent) receive warning tickets rather than citations that carry fines and require a court appearance.

The news isn't as good for drivers under the age of 26. Gizzi's analysis showed that nearly half the drivers pulled over  were younger drivers. 

"They target young people aggressively," Gizzi said. "As soon as you age above that, the nature of the stops seem to change. The minor (violation) stops are very high up for young people and diminish pretty dramatically as people age out," he added.

"Our policy does not target any particular group," Bleichner  said.

He attributed the number of traffic stops involving young drivers to the high percentage of ISU students in Normal and said young people tend to be in their cars longer and later than older drivers.

"For example, why are insurance companies' rates higher for individuals who are driving up to that 23-24  (age) range? That's because they are involved in more violations, more crashes," Bleichner said.

"They drive in certain ways that lend themselves to more accidents and we are out there looking for violations that could lead to accidents," he added.

The traffic stop data shows that about half the tickets issued are for moving violations, and the rest are for equipment, license plate or registration violations.

Gizzi said some of the violations include having a non-working license plate light or failing to signal within 100 feet of making a turn or lane change.

He characterized some police encounters with motorists as "minor nuisance pre-textual stops," meaning police may be using a minor violation to search a driver or a car in order to find a more serious violation, such as drug or weapons possession.

"People are being stopped for things like failure to use a turn signal properly. It's not that you don't use a turn signal, you don't use it within a hundred feet (of turning), or a lane violation or weaving in traffic," Gizzi said.

"The traffic code is so broad that officers can stop a driver for virtually anything," Gizzi added. 

"The code is what it is," Bleichner said. "There are tools in that traffic code that help keep the roads safe."

Bleichner said the fact that officers issued more warning tickets than fine-bearing tickets in 2015 shows they are using proper discretion. 

"I don't believe the officers are abusing their discretion at all. As a matter of fact, it shows that they are not writing citations in (most) cases and providing warnings to individuals with some redirection," he added.

Bleichner said searches of motorists and their cars had not increased proportionally to the increased number of stops.

"With over 19,000 stops, the percentage of searches is remarkably low," Bleichner said. He said according to his records, the number of searches resulting from traffic stops is less than 1 percent.

Verbal warnings, which used to be common for minor infractions, have dropped dramatically in the past year.

Bleichner said he wants his officers to write warning tickets rather than give verbal warnings so the department can have a written record of the officer' contacts with citizens.

Gizzi said he had not analyzed the data fully to determine if there is a difference between stops involving minorities and those involving whites. He said it did not appear African Americans were pulled over at a proportionately higher rate in 2015.

However, regarding age, Gizzi said the number of stops for whites drops significantly when the driver is over the age of 30.

"African Americans do not age out as smoothly in terms of police contact," Gizzi added. "A 45-year-old black man is still more likely to be stopped than a 45-year-old white man."

In recent years, Illinois traffic data has shown that African Americans are pulled over at proportionately higher rates than whites by both the Normal and Bloomington departments as well as ISU police -- a trend documented in GLT's 2014 series "Police and Race in the Twin Cities."

Gizzi said further conclusions about racial differences would require additional analysis of the 2015 data.

Editors note: This story was edited at 9:20 A.M. Oct. 27 to more accurately describe what constitutes a police "contact" with citizens under the revised NPD policy, and to include audio of the students GLT News spoke to at a "Cookout with the Cops" event organized by ISU students, and included in the original broadcast of the story during Sound Ideas Oct. 26.

Listen to the full interview with Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner.

Listen to comments of ISU students who recently attended a "Cookout with the Cops" event sponsored by the ISU Student Association and students studying criminal justice.