Page May speaks at an activism event

Racial bias in policing not just a Ferguson problem

By Kate Morrissey

Page May said that when her family came to visit her in Chicago, they were all standing on a street corner in Logan Square as a police officer pulled up slowly beside them and signaled to her that he was watching. She said he then drew his hand across his throat and drove away.

For May, an activist with Chicago-based We Charge Genocide, the recent findings by the Department of Justice’s civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department are nothing new, nor are they particular to the city of Ferguson. In 2014, May’s organization gathered testimony from African-American and Latino Chicagoans to submit to the United Nations about police brutality.

“In all of these stories, there was a theme not only of abuse and anger at that abuse, but also a feeling of complete impunity,” May said. “There’s a feeling that if something happens, there’s nothing that can be done about it.”

The DOJ report said that the distrust between Ferguson’s African-American community and the Ferguson Police Department comes from “unlawful and unfair law enforcement practices” that include racial profiling and racial bias. May said the same things happen in Chicago.

The DOJ found that 88 percent of documented instances of Ferguson police use of force was against African-Americans.

We Charge Genocide said in its report to the U.N., based on Chicago Police Department data from 2009 to 2011, 92 percent of Taser uses were against African-Americans or Latinos. We Charge Genocide’s report also said that from 2009 to 2013, 75 percent of police shooting victims were black. In fact, according to We Charge Genocide, 0.48 percent of brutality complaints against Chicago police are sustained compared with the national average of 8 percent.

While the Chicago Police Department did not respond to a request for overall use of force statistics, at least for the high end on the use of force continuum, Chicago police clearly use these particular types of response more frequently on people of color, and, like the Ferguson Police Department, as described in the DOJ report, resident complaints about use of force do not frequently result in disciplinary outcomes.

Chicago and Ferguson share similar statistics for less violent police actions as well.

The DOJ found that 85 percent of vehicle stops in Ferguson are of African-American drivers while the African-American community makes up 67 percent of the Ferguson population. Similarly, through analysis of Illinois Department of Transportation data, the American Civil Liberties Union found that, in 2013, African-American drivers accounted for 46 percent of vehicle stops in Chicago. According to the 2010 census, African-Americans make up 33 percent of the Chicago population.

Vehicle stops of African-Americans in Ferguson and Chicago

While it may look like Chicago has a lower rate of vehicle stops of African-Americans than Ferguson, the percent change is not that different. When compared with the general makeup of the population, the level of discrimination is comparable between Ferguson and Chicago. (Department of Justice, American Civil Liberties Union and 2010 Census, Kate Morrissey/Medill)

In contrast, the ACLU reported that, in 2013, white drivers accounted for 27.1 percent of vehicle stops in Chicago. According to the 2010 census, 45 percent of the Chicago population is white.

Vehicle stops by race in Chicago

The percentage of vehicle stops for African-Americans is higher than the group’s actual population in Chicago while the inverse is true for white Chicago motorists. (American Civil Liberties Union and 2010 Census, Kate Morrissey/Medill)

ACLU Illinois’ main concern, however, is the disparity in searches that occur as part of those vehicle stops.

According to the ACLU, data from the Illinois Department of Transportation show that African-American drivers in Chicago are almost five times more likely to be searched compared with white drivers. African-Americans in Ferguson, according to the DOJ, were more than twice as likely to be searched compared with white drivers.

Consent searches by race in Ferguson and Chicago

Consent searches of African-Americans in Ferguson and Chicago
African-American drivers in Chicago are 4.74 times more likely for a police officer to ask to search them than white drivers, and African-American drivers in Ferguson are two times more likely for a police officer to ask to search them than white drivers. (Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union, Kate Morrissey/Medill)

Once a police officer pulls someone over, the officer can decide whether the person seems suspicious enough for a consent search. African-American drivers in Chicago who were searched actually had contraband 12 percent of the time while white drivers had contraband 24 percent of the time. In Ferguson, African-American drivers had contraband 24 percent of the time while white drivers had contraband 30 percent of the time.

“There’s a different screen that’s being used to search African-American and Latino motorists,” said Ed Yohnka, the director of communications and public policy for the ACLU Illinois.

That difference in screening means that while a police officer has learned to notice indications of suspicious activity in white drivers, the officer uses race, either consciously or subconsciously, as one of those indicators when deciding to search a person of color.

“A consent search is not a simple exercise,” Yohnka added. “It’s a very invasive, intrusive, humiliating and degrading kind of experience.”

Contraband found during searches by race in Chicago

Contraband found during searches by race in Chicago
When a police officer asks to search someone after pulling that person over in Chicago, the officer actually finds contraband for 12 percent of African-American drivers searched and 24 percent of white drivers searched. In Ferguson, the officer finds contraband for 24 percent of African-American drivers searched and 30 percent of white drivers searched. (Department of Justice and American Civil Liberties Union, Kate Morrissey/Medill)

The DOJ called this kind of behavior in the Ferguson Police Department a violation of constitutional rights.

According to a 2014 report by The Sentencing Project, these behaviors occur across the country as part of the criminal justice system, which the report says negatively affects public safety.

When the system disproportionately targets people of color, communities of color suffer from unfair labeling while white communities get “a sense of legal immunity,” the report said.

The Sentencing Project’s report cited a 2010 ACLU study that found that African-Americans were 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession despite research that shows both groups use marijuana at a similar rate and that people tend to purchase drugs from dealers of their own ethnic background.

Drug arrests by race (nationally)

National marijuana usage and arrest rates
1.3 African-Americans use marijuana compared with white users. However, 3.7 African-Americans are arrested for marijuana possession compared with whites. (American Civil Liberties Union, Kate Morrissey/Medill)

Crime policies that target people of color lead to increased crime among both minorities and whites, The Sentencing Project report said. “When people do not see the police and justice system as fair, they see it as less legitimate and are less likely to follow the rules,” the report added.

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to requests for comment about whether any changes were being made based on its statistics.

At least three Ferguson city officials who were harshly criticized in the DOJ report have already stepped down. The DOJ made 13 recommendations to the Ferguson Police Department and 13 more to Ferguson’s municipal court to improve community trust in the system. Several of these involved police accountability and supervision.

While some, including President Barack Obama, have argued that body cameras will improve police accountability, May said she doesn’t think so.

“Watching the cops and filming them is important, but the camera needs to be in our hands,” May said. “Otherwise it’s going to be used against us.”

May’s mistrust even of tools meant to protect citizens may indicate just how far Chicago has to go before citizens feel equal in the eyes of the law.

“Every time I see a cop, I get all tense. They scare me. They really, really scare me,” May said. “They don’t even have to touch me to do anything.”

Photo at top: Page May addresses activists and citizens at a hearing on the Chicago Police torture victim reparation ordinance in February. (Kate Morrissey/Medill)