Black drivers 'stay ready,' navigating low-level traffic stops
When police pull over Black drivers in Illinois, it's mostly for non-moving violations.
This is the second installment of a series, “Profiled: The State of Traffic Stops in Illinois,” published in partnership with the Investigative Project on Race and Equity. Find the first story here.
James Etienne always keeps his “stay-ready folder” with him when he’s behind the wheel. Just in case.
The 39-year-old has been pulled over by police two dozen times since 2007, Cook County court records show, and in half of those encounters, he was cited only for non-moving violations — including broken tail lights, standing in a loading zone and the improper display of a license plate.
Etienne doesn’t have a perfect driving record. He’s been ticketed for speeding multiple times and was cited for driving when his license was suspended over unpaid red-light camera fees and fines. Currently, he’s in good standing, and he keeps his car title, bill of sale and other documents in the folder to show police if he’s stopped again.
“I’ve learned it’s better to stay ready than get ready,” said Etienne, an emergency medical services driver. “[W]hen someone asks me a question, I’m able to show them something tangible, rather than have them question me and my integrity and my validity.”
Etienne’s frequent encounters with police may sound familiar to Black drivers across Illinois. An analysis of 42.5 million traffic stop records by WBEZ and the Investigative Project on Race and Equity reveals that, in recent years, the share of Black drivers involved in Illinois traffic stops have reached their highest levels on record.
Last year, Black drivers accounted for nearly 30.5% of all traffic stops statewide, even though the state’s adult population is only 13.6% Black.
Beyond the number of drivers stopped, the data reveal why police initiate contact in the first place.
Last year, for the first time on record, more than half of Black drivers pulled over by police statewide were stopped for non-moving violations, like talking on the phone, not wearing a seatbelt or expired tags. Conversely, white drivers were stopped mostly for moving violations, like speeding.
Joshua Levin, an attorney with the ACLU of Illinois, said these encounters are rife for potential “pretextual stops,” where low-level traffic violations are used as an excuse to make contact with drivers – at the expense of their civil rights – in an effort to identify more serious crimes. Amid a recent surge in traffic stops by Chicago police, the ACLU filed a lawsuit earlier this year alleging that the department’s practices racially profile, harass and demean law-abiding citizens.
The data also show a fivefold increase in the number of Black drivers stopped for non-moving violations and let go with a warning. Latino drivers experienced a fourfold increase since the state began collecting the data. White drivers, by comparison, have seen little change in the number of non-moving stops resulting in a warning.
The contrast, Levin said, only raises more questions about the intent behind the stops.
Etienne can’t shake the feeling that police are always looking at him with suspicion, which he chalks up to being a Black man who, in his words, at times wears a “very urban hairstyle and shiny gold jewelry.” Cook County court records show his only interactions with police have involved traffic offenses.
Take the time he was stopped on the night of April 7, 2021, in the Loop. Etienne was parked at the side of the road using his cell phone. The incident was captured by police body cameras.
The stop marked the fourth time in two years that police initiated contact with Etienne since he began delivering food for a nearby Thai restaurant. Within a few minutes, officers cleared him and even ended the stop with an apology.
“Listen man, there’s been three shootings in this area,” the body camera footage shows the officer explaining to Etienne as he hands back his license. “That’s why we’re out here. It ain’t personal.”
A recent report by Chicago’s Inspector General showed that in the two years before that encounter, 71.5% of investigatory stops by Chicago police in that same downtown police district involved Black people. The same report found “strong evidence of race-based disparities in an analysis of stops and use-of-force incidents.”
After being stopped and questioned so many times, Etienne said it’s hard not to take it personally. “It feels like somebody is coming to take my freedom away,” he said.
Outcomes raise questions of intent
Our first installment of “Profiled: The State of Traffic Stops in Illinois” revealed that Illinois has gone backwards on reducing racial disparities since police started reporting data under the Illinois Traffic Stop Statistical Study Act, which then-State Sen. Barack Obama sponsored in 2003.
In west suburban Aurora, for example, police in 2022 stopped hundreds more Black drivers than white drivers – in a city where the white adult population is 3 ½-times larger than the Black adult population.
In south suburban Evergreen Park, Black drivers were the subjects of 60% of all traffic stops, even though the village’s adult population is 24% Black.
And in Chicago, police stopped four times as many Black drivers as white drivers, though more white adults live in the city than Black adults.“These stops are not based on race,” a Chicago Police Department spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to WBEZ. “Officers only conduct traffic stops when they have probable cause or reasonable articulable suspicion that a crime, including but not limited to traffic violations, has been committed, is being committed or is about to be committed.”
In every type of community across Illinois – urban, suburban and rural – racial disparities are ubiquitous, the data show. In 2022, roughly one-third of police departments that filed data, from west suburban Addison to Jo Daviess County on the Iowa border, reported stopping more Black drivers than their local adult Black populations.
Search rates show disparities, too. In 2022, Chicago police were four times more likely to request a “consent search” from Black or Latino drivers compared to white drivers. While infrequent, legal experts say this type of search – where officers ask permission to search a driver, passenger or a car without probable cause – deserves scrutiny because they suggest that officers don’t have much evidence of criminal activity.
And Chicago police were more likely to turn up contraband during consent searches involving white drivers, one out of every two consent searches, versus Black drivers, one out of every three.
“The data just basically validates the stories and the voices of Black and Brown community members,” said Ciera Bates-Chamberlain, the director of the nonprofit Live Free Illinois, which mobilizes Black churches to advocate for criminal justice reforms. She was also a member of the Illinois Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Data Use and Collection Task Force that made a series of recommendations to the legislature last year for improving methods for compiling and analyzing statewide data.
She said police often over-rely on high-volume, undiscerning stops to search for guns or other crimes, while diverting resources from evidence-based practices that are more effective at making communities safer.
“We’re not going to police our way out of gun violence,” said Bates-Chamberlain. “And we’re definitely not going to do it by pulling over every Black and Brown person that seems suspicious simply because of their skin color.”
In a written statement to WBEZ, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson vowed to take action on the traffic stop findings. “We will work with the Chicago Police Department to study these disparities and the effects they have on residents, make traffic stop strategy more transparent, implement fairer policing models in compliance with the consent decree and hold the CPD accountable for unfair practices,” the statement said.
“My administration is fully committed to restoring trust and confidence between Black and Brown communities and the Chicago Police Department to build a more just and inclusive city for all residents.”
“Oh, what is he up to?”
Since Richard Cornelius Jackson returned to Chicago after serving 11 years in the Navy, he’s been stopped in West Rogers Park, Skokie, Evanston, Austin and, most recently, last year in west suburban Bellwood.
Jackson, a 40-year-old federal immigration officer, likes to spend his money on cars. He’s had red and black Chevy Impalas and currently drives a black Jeep Grand Cherokee. He’s customized each one with chrome rims or tinted windows. While the cars bring Jackson joy, they’ve also attracted unwanted attention from the police.
Jackson has been stopped for fuzzy dice hanging from his rearview mirror, failing to use a turn signal and, most recently, for not wearing a seatbelt (which he denies, and the citation was thrown out in court).
“As a Black man, regardless of how much money I make or what type of car I drive or where I live, when I see a police officer and when the police officer sees me, they think, ‘Oh, what is he up to? What drugs does he have on him?’” Jackson said.
The encounters are terrifying every single time, Jackson said, even for a veteran. The most frightening interaction occurred just outside of his house on a Saturday morning in 2016 when he was returning home from a car wash, a normal part of his weekend routine.
Jackson noticed an unmarked police SUV out of the corner of his eye as he turned into an alley leading to the home he owned in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood at the time. Though he knew he didn’t do anything wrong, he kept his gaze down, trying to avoid eye contact with the officers.
Then, he saw police lights flash in his rearview mirror and four officers jumped out of the car yelling, “All windows down!”
Jackson did exactly what an instructor advised when he left basic training, both as a safety precaution and a reminder of how he was expected to conduct himself as a soldier. He stared straight ahead with his hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. No sudden movements, he reminded himself.
“They all approach my vehicle. And the officer on my passenger side, front door, first thing he says, is ‘What’s up with your tags?’” Jackson recalls.
Jackson was sure that his registration sticker from the Illinois Secretary of State was up to date because he had it customized.
Ultimately, the police let him go, but he still felt wronged. He sent an email to the U.S. Department of Justice offering to share his experiences as part of the agency’s investigation into civil rights abuses by the Chicago Police Department.
He contacted police brass in the district, too. Their response, Jackson recalled: “Sue us.”
The problem was that he couldn’t find an attorney to take his case, Jackson said. The lawyers he contacted wanted to know if the officers put him in handcuffs or beat him.
“Most attorneys want you to have a bloodied face or missing teeth or gunshot wounds before they even want to take the case,” Jackson said.
Legislative changes afoot
Virginia and Oregon have enacted recent reforms aimed at reducing low-level traffic encounters and consent searches.
In Illinois, law enforcement agencies have been left largely to address racial profiling internally. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, the third-largest police agency in the state, requires officers to participate in training on topics like implicit bias. In Chicago, Highland Park, Mount Prospect and Joliet, reforms and training were instituted following legal challenges or state or federal oversight.
State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) said he and his colleagues are focusing on legislative changes that would reduce unnecessary interactions between police and drivers.
Ford, who’s Black, has had his own negative experiences with traffic stops, including an incident years ago when officers pulled their guns on him and his young child. “My daughter was in the back seat and she was crying,” he said. “They had no compassion. It was scary.”
Ford was the lead sponsor of a bill, which became law earlier this year, eliminating officers’ ability to stop someone for having an object— like fuzzy dice or a rosary — hanging from a vehicle’s rear view mirror. He said the bill got traction after Daunte Wright was killed in 2021 by an officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, after being stopped for having an air freshener hanging from his rear view mirror.“We have to take away the laws that are on the books that give police a legal reason for pulling people over because they say, ‘Oh, I only pulled you over not because you’re Black, but because you had an air freshener hanging from your window,’” Ford said.
Lawmakers in Virginia went even further. Under a law adopted in 2020, police can no longer use dangling objects, broken or defective equipment, like tail lights and exhaust pipes, or window tints as the primary reason for stopping drivers.
Jackson, the veteran, has been vocal about his experiences in hopes of accountability. He’s filed complaints against police in Chicago and Evanston. He’s also written to state elected officials, like the secretary of state, and his former state senator nearly a decade ago.
“Senator [Heather] Steans, my question to you is what happens when it is revealed there is racial profiling occurring?” he wrote in an email. “What is the purpose of collecting the data if there are no repercussions?”
Jackson said he’s frustrated. “I don’t do anything that warrants being stopped or harassed. I go to work, I pay my taxes, stay out of trouble,” he said. “I’m just trying to get to work, just going about my days.”
Nearly a decade since returning to the Chicago area, he isn’t sure if the practice will ever change. “I guess not in my lifetime anyway,” he said. “But, to the extent that I can help it, I will always exercise my rights, regardless of how nervous I am or what anxiety I might have during the stop. I’m gonna assert my rights.”
He’s also taking extra precautions and said he recently bought a dash camera. “In case something else happens,” Jackson said, “there will be no disputing the evidence.”
Ola Giwa, Leslie Hurtado, Taylor Moore and Michael Liptrot contributed to this story.