New policy would overhaul long-criticized Chicago Police Dept. traffic stop-and-search tactic

ByBarb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Maggie Green, and Tom Jones and Chuck Goudie WLS logo
Thursday, May 16, 2024
New policy would overhaul long-criticized CPD traffic stop and search tactic
A new policy would overhaul the Chicago Police Department's long-criticized traffic stop and search policy, and would see prosecutors declining some cases.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- For years, disgruntled drivers, civil rights advocates, along with city leaders have voiced frustration to the I-Team about so-called "pre-textual" traffic stops in the city of Chicago: officers disproportionately pulling over drivers of color for non-public safety related vehicle infractions, with the intent to search the driver and vehicle.

Critics have long labeled the CPD tactic as underhanded and unconstitutional.

But the use of routine traffic stops as a way to search vehicles could become history under a new plan now being pushed by outgoing Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx.

According to a draft policy document obtained by the I-Team, the Cook County State's Attorney's office would "decline to prosecute" cases that are "solely the product of a non-public-safety traffic stop."

To read the full draft policy proposal, click here.

Even if a gun, drugs or stolen property were to be discovered during the search of a vehicle, the proposed policy states prosecutors would not pursue the case if the reason for the traffic stop was a "non-public-safety" reason, which includes "expired vehicle registration, missing front license plates, license plate illumination, or headlights, signal lights or rear lamplight violations, unless both headlights or both rear brake lights are nonfunctioning."

Those minor offenses comprised almost 70% of all traffic stops made by CPD in 2023, according to a recent study by the policy center Impact for Equity and Free2Move Coalition.

The policy document states it was drafted in response to the "disproportionate" negative impacts to those living in under-resourced communities across Chicago.

"Non-public safety stops, such as pulling drivers over for minor traffic violations or equipment-related infractions, can have negative effects as other discretionary police tactics, like the 'stop and frisk' practice," the policy's intent statement reads. "This can lead to an unjust and unfair treatment of people, specifically Black and Latinx individuals who have been disproportionately impacted by such policing practices in major cities across the country."

In an exclusive interview, Foxx told the I-Team the written policy is needed to correct a police strategy that hasn't had an impact on public safety.

"Before I leave office, I would love for our office to have a comprehensive policy related to what we would call 'pretextual stops,'" Foxx said. "Akin to what we have seen in places in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, who recognize that these stops carry an inherent risk to officers and a driver, and sew distrust in our communities."

'Traffic Stop Strategy'

Police data analyzed by the I-Team shows the number of CPD traffic stops have taken a colossal leap in the past 10 years, and its unlikely because of an increase in poor driving.

Police data analyzed by the I-Team show the number of traffic stops conducted by the Chicago Police Department have grown exponentially in the last 10 years, from a little more than 100,000 stops in 2013, to more than 534,000 stops in 2023.

Critics have labeled traffic stops as the new version of the old "stop and frisk" street-search tactic; one that CPD agreed to limit in 2016.

Inside Chicago police headquarters, it was branded as the "traffic stop strategy": officers and tactical units were instructed to use ordinary traffic stops as a way to intercept drugs, guns and gang members, in an effort "to address shootings and robberies," according to internal memos to CPD's top brass in 2020 that were obtained by the policy center Impact for Equity, and reviewed by the I-Team.

"Effective traffic stops [w]ill decrease violence," commanders wrote in 2020.

In the three years after that proclamation, crime rate results are mixed.

Shootings and homicides citywide saw a notable decrease in 2023, compared to the previous three-year average, with shootings down 26% and homicides down 19%. The number of robberies last year increased by 14%.

What role traffic stops played in those stats is debatable.

"Traffic stops are critical when it comes to addressing violent crime," said ABC 7 police affairs consultant and former suburban police chief Bill Kushner. "Every contact with the public is important."

But new police data analyzed by the I-Team show CPD traffic stops rarely resulted in any charges or even traffic citations last year.

A gun was only discovered in one out of every 1,000 traffic stops, and in 96% of stops in 2023, drivers received nothing but a verbal warning from officers.

Civil rights advocates say the over-emphasis on traffic stops is causing community harm, and resources would be better deployed elsewhere.

"The stops are remarkably ineffective at promoting public safety," said Cara Hendrickson, executive director of Impact for Equity, which has been researching the department's use of traffic stops for years.

State's Attorney Foxx tells the I-Team that before she leaves office early next year, she wants traffic stop-based searches by police to no longer happen when there is no public safety threat.

"We don't believe that police should be pulling people over for non-safety issues," Foxx explained. "If someone is committing an act in their vehicle, that presents a threat to the public -- driving erratically, driving drunk, -- [then] absolutely. But doing these searches that have a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities, that don't net a public safety benefit, we should not do that."

Dexter Reed

The traffic stop controversy came to roost in East Garfield Park on March 21, during the CPD stop turned fatal police shooting of 26-year-old motorist Dexter Reed.

Tactical unit traffic stops in the 11th District, where Reed was stopped, was a top priority in the "traffic stop strategy," internal police records from 2020 show, with commanders writing, "[Tactical units] should be leading the district in stops... [Police District] 011 has the most violence and should be leading the city (Districts) in stops."

A tactical unit said it pulled Reed over for not wearing a seat belt, but within moments after pulling Reed over, investigators with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) say they believe Reed fired at officers, wounding one in the wrist.

Officers returned fire with 96 shots, killing Reed.

COPA has called the basis for the traffic stop into question, challenging officers' accounts of how they saw Reed not wearing a seat belt given his SUV's dark-tinted windows.

COPA also wrote to Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling, requesting the officers be relieved of their police powers, citing other instances of traffic stops by the same officers that are currently under investigation.

The newly proposed state's attorney's office policy would not prevent charges originating from traffic stops for seat belt violations, but Foxx said there has to be a balance between violations that could be addressed via tickets in the mail, versus police intervention.

"When we are substituting the truth, which is are you pulling someone over for a tail light or are you pulling someone over because you want to look in their car without probable cause? We don't get to circumvent the Constitution. We don't get to circumvent people's rights. We want to keep people safe. I don't think we can do it by, you know, the ends justify the means," Foxx said.

The I-Team has learned the state's attorney's office has been in discussions with the city concerning the proposed traffic stop policy but it's not evident how long those conversations have been underway or when they began.

In a recent interview with Supt. Larry Snelling, the I-Team asked him about the city's use of traffic stops as a form of policing, and whether any policies have changed.

Supt. Snelling said, "I can't tell you that was the city's policy, it's not the city's policy. It hasn't been. It may have been an initiative by someone who thinks or who felt that was a style of police work. For me, I see things differently. I'm more focused on violent crimes."

"What I'm looking for are those individuals who are in cars, who are looking to commit violent acts, robberies and even motor vehicle thefts," Snelling explained. "This is how we keep crime down and keep violent crimes down. If we're not doing that, then it becomes open season on our communities."

At the time of the ABC7 I-Team interview with Supt. Snelling, we had not yet learned of prosecutors' new traffic stop policy proposal-or that it had been sent to Chicago police officials.

Twenty-four hours before our report was broadcast on Wednesday night, we asked CPD officials for a response to the draft policy and whether they intended to follow the Foxx plan. At airtime, we had not received a reply.

Thursday, nearly 24 hours after the I-Team report was broadcast, Chicago police emailed us a response:

"We do not comment on draft policies developed by external agencies" a CPD media official stated. "The Superintendent has made clear that our efforts to reduce violent crimes do not center around traffic stops. CPD has seen a significant reduction in traffic stops this year compared to this time last year. Additionally, our officers receive 4th Amendment

Training as we emphasize constitutional policing in all of our public safety efforts."