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WBEZ Investigation Reveals Illinois Traffic Stop Disparities

Written by on September 29, 2023

Two decades after Illinois passed the Traffic Stop Statistical Study Act, championed by then-state senator Barack Obama, WBEZ and the Investigative Project on Race and Equity shed light on the disturbing findings in their three-part investigation, “Profiled: The State of Traffic Stops in Illinois.”

WBEZ data editor Matt Kiefer and WBEZ’s Michael Liptrot delved into the findings of the new investigation with Vocalo afternoons host Nudia Hernandez. The collaborative project analyzed more than 42 million records of traffic stop data across the state, uncovering ongoing trends of the bias and racial disparities of these stops.

When the traffic stop act was initially passed, the expectation at the time was for local communities to use the information to alter their officer trainings and lessen implicit bias. However, this had an inverse effect, as the percentage of Black drivers being stopped has increased.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office deploys additional police to predominantly Black communities in Chicago and the south suburbs to support local law enforcement. Bill Healy / WBEZ

Since data was first collected in 2004, the statistics show that the percentage of Black drivers being stopped has actually increased to from 18% to 30%. And in the city of Chicago, specifically, where Black, white and Latino populations are roughly equal, traffic stops of Black drivers in 2022 were more than four times that of whites and more than twice that of Latinos. Through community conversations, the investigators uncovered drivers were often stopped due to stereotyped observations.

“One of the first questions being asked of them is either, ‘Do you have a gun, do you have a FOID card?’ – which is implying you have a gun – or, ‘Do you have a gun on you?’” Liptrot explained. By automatically assuming a Black driver has a gun, drugs, or other typecast paraphernalia, minor situations often escalate, investigators uncovered.

WBEZ’s Michael Liptrot (left) and WBEZ data editor Matt Kiefer (right) discuss the findings of three-part investigation “Profiled: The State of Traffic Stops in Illinois” with Vocalo afternoons host Nudia Hernandez (not pictured). Morgan Ciocca / Vocalo Radio

While the data journalism aimed to uncover the trends in traffic stops across the entire state, it was also uncovered that several small towns and cities failed to submit complete traffic stop data. Kiefer and Liptrot faced a challenge, as one out of five police departments (out of over 1,000 municipalities) did not submit any information or submitted partial information. 

The revelations confirmed by WBEZ and Investigative Project on Race and Equity are a stark reminder of the challenges within our justice system. Now, with over 42 million records in the database assembled by the journalists assembled, the call for accountability, reform and open dialogue is more present than ever.

After their findings were made public, WBEZ’s Matt Kiefer and Michael Liptrot sat down with Nudia Hernandez to explain the data to listeners. Listen to the whole conversation above.

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Interview by Nudia Hernandez

Production by Ayana Contreras

Written introduction by Blake Hall

In-studio photography by Morgan Ciocca

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