In an appearance in the White House Briefing Room last month, President Barack Obama made a personal plea for a “national conversation” on race in the wake of the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. The president noted that “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws.” He pointed to legislation on racial profiling that passed under his leadership in the Illinois Senate, which collects data each year on traffic stops and the race of the person stopped. This data, the president said, would “allow [the police] to do their jobs better.” Unfortunately, this has not been the experience in Illinois.

Since 2004, Obama’s law has collected and reported data on law enforcement activity. The data for 2012 has been released. While there is troubling data about law enforcement statewide, data from one agency has been particularly disturbing — the Illinois State Police.

Troopers have unfairly singled out African-American and Latino drivers for consent searches. A consent search occurs when a trooper asks for the motorist’s permission to search an automobile during a routine traffic stop, simply on a “hunch” that the person is carrying contraband. Of course an overwhelming majority of people consent to such a request for a search.

Each year since 2004, African-American and Hispanic motorists have been two to four times more likely than white motorists to be asked by Illinois state troopers for permission to search.

Consent searches by the State Police increased by six-fold last year compared with 2011, and the troubling pattern of racial disparity continued. The latest data shows that Hispanic motorists are nearly 2½ times, and African Americans are more than 1½ times more likely than white drivers to be asked for permission to search their cars by a state trooper.

While Hispanics are subjected to these searches more frequently than whites, white motorists are more than twice as likely to be caught with contraband. And white motorists are 8 percent more likely to have contraband discovered in a consent search compared to the more frequently searched African-American motorists.

The obvious explanation for this disparity is that ISP troopers use a lower standard to search cars driven by persons of color. Of course, not only is this focus on motorists of color unfair, it is inefficient in pursuing crime.

This year, the traffic stop data also reported on the race of motorists when police used a drug-sniffing dog. The same troubling patterns emerge in the use of these dogs. ISP troopers were three times more likely to subject Hispanic motorists to a dog sniff, compared with white motorists. Yet the dogs were 27 percent more likely to alert on white motorists than Hispanic motorists, and in the manual searches based on dog alerts, troopers were 63 percent more likely to find contraband with white motorists than Hispanic motorists. These data show unfair treatment of Hispanic motorists.

One might think that Illinois and federal officials would act swiftly to correct this problem, especially since much of this data has remained unchanged over the past six years. Sadly, public officials have failed to act.

Two summers ago, when the data revealed a similar discriminatory pattern with consent searches by the State Police, Gov. Pat Quinn and the leadership of the State Police said they would “study” the problem and offer solutions. We have heard no update on those investigations even while we see a continuation of the same troubling racial disparity.

The Illinois Racial Profiling Prevention and Data Oversight Board is supposed to make recommendations for addressing disparities uncovered by the annual data. But the board’s membership, composed of legislators, law enforcement officials, community organizations and academics, was not appointed for several years, has met irregularly and made no substantial findings.

Even the Obama administration failed to take action. Two years ago, the ACLU of Illinois filed a complaint against the Illinois State Police with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, citing the data on traffic stops and consent searches. The department never publicly responded to that complaint. The Obama administration should bring an enforcement action to implement the Illinois law the president helped pass.

We must address the problems of racial bias in our criminal justice system. For years, Illinois and federal officials have been presented with clear, convincing evidence that the Illinois State Police are unfairly subjecting thousands of innocent drivers of color to degrading searches on our highways. It is time for our state and federal officials to step up to the plate and correct this insidious problem.

Originally posted on The Chicago Sun-Times website.