It’s called “driving while black” or DWB.
That’s a troubling expression that refers to a motorist who is stopped by police because of his or her skin color, not for speeding or breaking some other traffic law.
African-American motorists have told the Better Government Association and FOX 32 that they believe it’s a common occurrence in Evergreen Park, a predominately white suburb of nearly 20,000 that abuts Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Evergreen Park officials say that is not true and, in fact, there is no concrete evidence that Evergreen Park police are racial profiling, or stopping motorists for DWB.
But the suburb’s widening gulf between the number of white and minority traffic stops is troubling to some civil rights experts and is drawing attention to police practices. Such frequent stops also raise questions that the suburb is seeking to boost revenues by targeting and imposing fines on minority drivers.
More than 93,000 minority motorists, mostly blacks, were stopped in Evergreen Park from 2004 to 2011, compared to 41,331 whites over the same period, according to Illinois Department of Transportation data analyzed by FOX 32 and the BGA.
What’s more, even as the total number of traffic stops in Evergreen Park increased over that eight-year span, the number of whites who were pulled over remained relatively flat at about 5,000 a year, while the number of minorities climbed 53 percent to 14,656 in 2011, from 9,600 in 2004, according to IDOT.
“The data shows some real red flags,” says University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, an expert on civil rights and police accountability. “Unlike the rest of Illinois, racial disparity is going up in Evergreen Park.”
FOX 32 reported last month that Evergreen Park police were engaging in a controversial and possibly dangerous practice: offering drivers a break on traffic tickets if they helped cops find illegal handguns. The motorists who were interviewed believed they were singled out because of race.
Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton declined to be interviewed for this latest story.
So did Police Chief Michael Saunders, though he issued a statement defending his department’s conduct and emphasis on traffic patrols, a tactic he credits with keeping the community’s crime rate low.
“Many other crimes are detected using these methods including identifying a large amount of drivers with suspended, revoked or expired licenses,” Saunders says in the statement. “These identifications multiply the instance of recovered weapons, illegal drugs and individuals with various arrest warrants and other criminal acts that would normally go undetected.”
One village official denied the municipality is using traffic stops as a revenue generator. But it’s hard to deny such stops help fill local government coffers. Traffic-related fines in Evergreen Park produced roughly $375,000 in fiscal year 2011, according to the village. (In fiscal year 2010 the total was about $335,000.)
Amid statewide concerns about racial profiling, then-state Sen. Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation in 2003 that required Illinois law enforcement agencies to document the race of all drivers who are pulled over, why they were stopped and the outcome of the stops.
The first Illinois Traffic Stop Statistical Study was released in 2005 by IDOT, the state agency charged with collecting the self-reported data.
In the study each municipality is assigned an estimated minority driving population, a benchmark intended to show who’s on the streets at a given time. For example, if a town’s estimated minority driving population is 90 percent, it makes sense that most of the stops involve minorities.
Calculating the benchmark is challenging, experts agree, as driving populations are fluid and can vary on a daily and even hourly basis. The racial makeup of the town is just one factor for determining the benchmark.
In Evergreen Park, about 67 percent of the 19,832 residents are white, followed by blacks who comprise 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Yet, in the IDOT study the suburb’s estimated minority driving population is 62.57 percent because the parts of Chicago that surround Evergreen Park on three sides are “heavily minority.”
Saunders argues in a letter to IDOT that the town’s minority driving population is even higher, the reason nearly 75 percent of stops involved non-white drivers in 2010 and 2011. A copy of the letter was published in the 2010 study.
Even so, some black drivers say they feel targeted.
“In Evergreen Park, if you’re black, you’re going to get stopped,” says David Lowery, founder and CEO of nonprofit Living & Driving While Black Foundation.
Lowery, 55, believes he was a victim of racial profiling in March 2011. He was pulled over and ticketed for speeding by an Evergreen Park police officer. But Lowery, who is black and once headed the south suburban chapter of the NAACP, contends he did nothing wrong and was targeted because of his race.
He complained to Saunders and the citation, at the chief’s request, was dismissed, Lowery says.
The BGA and FOX 32 recently spent a day observing Evergreen Park police making traffic stops along major thoroughfares such as 95th Street, and California and Kedzie avenues.
Two black motorists who were ticketed for speeding told the BGA and FOX 32 that they broke no traffic laws and were stopped because of their race, though they couldn’t prove that cops wrongly issued them citations.
“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong,” says Estoria Purnell, 44, of the city’s Ashburn neighborhood. “But I don’t feel like it.”
Purnell was visibly shaken after being ticketed for driving too fast on Kedzie, near 98th Street. She had never been stopped in Evergreen Park before but says the suburb has a reputation.
“They’re well known for pulling over African-Americans,” she says.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter and FOX 32’s Dane Placko and Patrick McCraney. To reach them call (312) 821-9035 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.