Cross-posted at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Lost amid the controversy surrounding President Obama's remarks about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. are the president's contemporaneous comments regarding racial profiling in his home state of Illinois. It was the president -- as a state senator in Springfield -- who took the first steps to address the insidious problem of discriminatory law enforcement. Now, Gov. Quinn and the Illinois General Assembly must act to join the president's fight against racial profiling.
In 2002, while in our General Assembly, the president championed legislation mandating the collection of data about the race and ethnicity of every motorist stopped by Illinois police. As he stated in his comments on the Gates matter, the president did so because in Illinois there was "indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately."
Thanks to the president, we now have five additional years of detailed data collected by Illinois law enforcement agencies about the racial characteristics of their traffic stops. The data show that year after year in all parts of our state, a driver of color is more likely to be stopped for a routine traffic violation -- the types of violation that vast majority of drivers on our roads, streets and highways commit at any given moment. Just-released data for calendar year 2008 demonstrate that African-American drivers in Illinois are 25 percent more likely to be stopped and Hispanic drivers are 10 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers.
The data also revealed that the disproportionate treatment did not end with the traffic stop. Once stopped, the data show, minority motorists are far more likely to be asked for "consent" to search their automobile. These searches are performed when there is no articulable suspicion of wrongdoing and are at the complete discretion of the police. In calendar year 2006, for example, the Illinois State Police were twice as likely to ask an African-American driver for permission to search his car and four times more likely to ask a Hispanic driver for permission to search when compared with white motorists. A consultant hired by the Illinois State Police concluded that there was no innocent explanation for the disparate treatment of minorities once they are stopped for a routine traffic infraction.
This lack of an innocent explanation becomes more compelling when one other fact is added: The data collected actually show that police are more likely to find contraband in the smaller percentage of white motorists they search, compared with the higher percentage of minority motorists subjected to this humiliating treatment. Despite claims that consent searches are an important law enforcement "tool," the data reveal that for calendar year 2007, as an example, no significant amount of drugs were found in a consent search performed by the Illinois State Police.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, the NAACP, Operation PUSH, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other civil rights organization called on state officials to adopt reforms to address this problem. Specifically, we called for the cessation of consent searches by police, particularly the State Police.
The response has been silence. On the legislative front, efforts to ban consent searches stalled in legislative committees, despite consistent evidence of the racial disparity in these searches. Rather than take action in the face of "indisputable" evidence, some legislators suggest studying the problem for a longer time before taking any action.
Quinn has not addressed biased law enforcement by his own state police. The governor has not answered repeated requests to bar consent searches by the State Police, something he can do without awaiting action by the state Legislature.
Obama's statement last week demonstrates that he remains ahead of Illinois leaders in addressing the problems of racially biased law enforcement in a direct and forthright way. While he put in place a data collection plan that has proven the existence of profiling on our streets and highways, the current leadership in our state seems content with the status quo. It is time for Quinn and Illinois legislative leaders to follow the lead of the president and act.
Illinois must act on racial profiling
Cross-posted at the Chicago Sun-Times.