Chicago police traffic stops skyrocket after CPD ends stop-and-frisk, data shows

Black drivers are pulled over the most, data analysis shows

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Tom Jones, and Maggie Green WLS logo
Thursday, February 22, 2024
CPD traffic stops skyrocket after stop-and-frisk ends, data shows
Chicago police traffic stops have increased after CPD agreed to limit the use of stop-and-frisk, data shows. Black drivers are the most targeted.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Most motorists know the feeling: blue lights in the rear-view mirror as they are pulled over by police. Some drivers end up handcuffed while their vehicle is searched, especially if they are Black and driving in Chicago.

That is what the data shows, according to an analysis of traffic stops by the ABC 7 I-Team.

And there is more behind the stats: the Chicago Police Department may have made a "search switch," replacing controversial pedestrian pat-downs with new, and sometimes aggressive, vehicle searches.

Civil rights advocates and researchers are sounding alarms over the use of traffic stops, arguing they are being used as a method of racial profiling; the very problem that police were tasked with fixing years back.

This switch to traffic stops as a means for combatting violent crimes dates to 2016. That is when, faced with public pressure, the Chicago Police Department formally agreed to back away from another controversial tactic known as "stop-and-frisk," where people are searched on the street often with little-to-no probable cause.

Civil rights advocates argued the "stop-and-frisk" tactic disproportionately targeted people of color, and the ACLU released an in-depth analysis of its use in Chicago, which led to the formal and historical agreement by CPD.

READ MORE: Driven by Race: Chicago's persistent problem of Black and white traffic stops

A new I-Team analysis of police records found that of more than 2 million traffic stops by Chicago police since 2016, 60% were Black drivers.

But while Chicago police officials agreed to limit that stop and frisk tactic, the I-Team found the department may have simply replaced one old problem with a new one.

Traffic stops and searches are increasingly costing city taxpayers and still disproportionately targeting Black drivers, the I-Team found after examining court records and police data.

Drivers like Gary Lewis, in the city's Auburn Gresham neighborhood, can attest to the tactic's consequences.

"It went from, 'Hey, can you prove this is your motor vehicle?' to now I'm being pulled out of the vehicle and placed into handcuffs," Lewis said, recalling an encounter with Chicago police in May 2022.

Lewis said he was parked outside of his home when he saw a Chicago police vehicle driving the wrong way on a one-way street. He said the officers turned around and pulled up behind him.

Lewis said he was in a loaner vehicle from a local dealership while his car was under repair. According to a CPD report, the dealer plates on the vehicle raised suspicion after a registration search "returned negative results." Lewis said police suspected the SUV was stolen.

"I gave [the officer] the loan agreement," Lewis explained, "And he says, 'This could be fake, how do I know this is real?'"

Lewis said he was aggravated, taking out his cell phone to record the encounter. He shared the video with the I-Team.

In the video, CPD officers are heard asking Lewis for his driver's license, which Lewis said he would not share unless the officers explained their reasoning for the stop.

"I wanted to exercise my right, the right to know, what was the cause for the stop?" Lewis said.

Officers told him they were conducting an "investigatory stop" and eventually, Lewis said he was detained while officers searched him and the vehicle.

"They searched me," Lewis said. "They took my driver's license out of my wallet. So at that point, I thought it would end."

Instead, Lewis was arrested on charges of obstruction of justice, failing to produce his valid license, and for not having proof of insurance, which Lewis said was in his glovebox during the stop.

The CPD report notes officers found nothing illegal in Lewis' car, and after spending two nights in jail, all charges against Lewis were eventually dropped.

Lewis told the I-Team the dealership later told him the loaner vehicle was legally registered under the business' name, and it was unclear why CPD's registration check returned no results.

"I was shocked," he said.

Lewis is now suing the city, alleging he was the victim of an unlawful stop and search.

Attorneys representing the city have yet to formally respond to the allegations, according to court records. Last week, attorneys representing the city asked a federal judge for more time to review the facts in the case and file a formal response.

But civil rights advocates tell the I-Team this case typifies a new police tactic deployed citywide.

"Traffic stops are sort of the new 'stop and frisk,'" said Alexandra Block, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois.

Vehicle stops by Chicago police have surged since 2016, according to an analysis of traffic stop data that the city is required to report to state officials.

In the same year that CPD agreed to limit its use of stop-and-frisk, CPD made 187,000 traffic stops citywide.

Three years later, in 2019, those numbers had soared to 600,000 stops.

And after a dip in traffic stops citywide during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, the most recent figures from 2022 show CPD made more than a 500,000 stops.

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to the I-Team's numerous requests for comment on their own data and for this report.

However, a 2020 memo from CPD headquarters reveals why high-ranking officials have pushed to orchestrate more vehicle stops and searches.

"Traffic stops are needed to assist with the combat against violence. The present traffic stops are not sufficient," a deputy chief wrote in the fall of 2020. "The higher the traffic stops creates the less likely for shootings using firearms."

The memo and dozens of emails were obtained by the Chicago-based non-profit advocacy and research organization "Impact for Equity" through a Freedom of Information records request, and released as part of a study into CPD traffic stops citywide.

"The police aren't really interested in enforcing the alleged traffic infraction that was the supposed basis of the stop. They're trying to look for evidence of illegally-possessed guns or drugs," said Block.

According to an I-Team data analysis of nearly two million vehicles stopped during a four-year period, police rarely found anything against the law.

Four out of every 1,000 vehicles stopped in Chicago since 2016 led to the discovery of something illegal.

The I-Team also found that taxpayers end up footing the bill when innocent drivers are caught in the CPD-branded "traffic stop strategy."

Consider Keith Griffin, a state corrections officer who was pulled over by CPD in Longwood Manor in June of 2022 for not wearing a seatbelt, according to police and court records.

Less than three minutes after he was stopped, Griffin was handcuffed while officers started to search his vehicle, as seen in officer-worn body camera footage of the stop obtained by the I-Team.

Officers suspected Griffin after they said they "observed [his] extreme nervousness" after he was pulled over, according to an investigative stop report later filed by the officers.

The officers found nothing illegal in Griffin's vehicle, and he was eventually allowed to leave for work with no citation or charges.

Griffin later sued the city, alleging the search was "unlawful."

The city "denied any allegations of wrongdoing or other misconduct" during the stop, but agreed to settle the case for $37,000.

Examining federal court records, the I-Team found Griffin's lawsuit is one of 24 suits settled since 2016, with payouts by taxpayers totaling nearly $920,000.

Drivers including Lewis question of the traffic stop strategy is working.

"We need the right officers, doing the right things and treating everybody equally in the city of Chicago," Lewis said.

Last year, the ACLU filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city, asking a federal court to step in and ban CPD's "use of traffic stops as a way to search for weapons or drugs," among other requests.

The city has yet to formally respond to the allegations raised in the lawsuit.

UPDATE - Feb. 22, 2024: After this story was published, the Chicago Police Department e-mailed an apology to the I-Team for not responding to our inquiries. In the e-mail, a CPD official provided the following statement in response to our reporting:

"Fair and constitutional policing is the foundation of the Chicago Police Department's efforts to strengthen public safety and trust across the city.

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.

These stops are not conducted based on race or any other protected class.

Additionally, as part of our ongoing reform and consent decree compliance efforts, CPD mandates implicit bias training for all Chicago Police officers."