Chicago Cops Are Abusing Stop-and-Frisk

Chicago police are pictured on patrol in 2013. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois says officers are employing the controversial "stop and frisk" practice more than officers in New York City, where a judge ruled the widespread practice discriminated against minorities. In a study released March 23, 2015 the ACLU says Chicago officers last summer conducted more than 250,000 stops of people who weren't arrested. M. Spencer Green/AP

Chicago police are now among the nation's leaders in the use of the controversial "stop-and-frisk" practice, replacing New York City, which had been notorious for the technique. That startling finding is at the core of a new report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois on the practice by the Chicago Police Department (CPD).

The report highlights the use (and overuse) of the practice in Chicago, notes that the justification for such stops often fails to meet constitutional standards and makes recommendations for fixing CPD policies in order to curb abuses and restore community trust in the city.

Perhaps the most startling finding of the ACLU report is that during the summer of 2014, CPD conducted more than a quarter million stops of civilians that did not lead to an arrest. When comparing that number of stops to population in Chicago versus New York City at the height of that city's controversial use of the stop-and-frisk practice, Chicagoans were stopped more than four times as often as people in New York.

Stops per 1,000 residents was 93.6 in Chicago, compared to 22.9 (at the highest point in 2011) in New York City. The New York police have been forced to curb significantly their use of stop-and-frisk after a federal judge found the use in that city to be unconstitutional.

"While most of the media coverage has suggested that that stop-and-frisk was a New York phenomenon, its misuse is not limited to New York," said Harvey Grossman, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "Chicago has been systematically abusing this practice, for reasons that are not justified by our Constitution."

"And just like New York, we see that African Americans are singled out for these searches," added Grossman.

A "stop-and-frisk" search has become common in African American and Latino communities across Chicago. Under a 1968 Supreme Court ruling, officers are allowed to stop a civilian if they have reasonable suspicion that person has been, is, or is about to be involved in criminal activity. Once the stop has occurred, officers can frisk the individual if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is dangerous or has a weapon in his or her possession.

The ACLU report demonstrates that in Chicago, these stops disproportionately target people of color and often are done without the justification required by the court.

According to data from calendar year 2014 analyzed by the ACLU, African Americans represent nearly 72 percent of all the stops in the city of Chicago, as compared to the reality that African Americans represent only about 32 percent of the city's population. The data analyzed by the ACLU show that stops most commonly take place in the districts with the largest minority populations. For example, in 2014, police conducted 266 stops per 1,000 people in the Englewood area (which is predominantly African American) while the rate in predominantly white Lincoln/Foster district was just 43 per 1,000 people.

However, the data also show that African Americans are much more likely to be the target of stops in predominantly white neighborhoods. Thus, in Jefferson Park, where the population is just 1 percent African American, African Americans account for a full 15 percent of all stop-and-frisks in that area. In the Near North District, where the African American population is 9.1 percent, African Americans are subjected to more than one-half (57.7 percent) of all the stops. The ACLU report concludes that "black citizens are disproportionately subjected to more stops than their white counterparts."

The report also explores the problems with the reasons for many of the stops taking place. Each time a Chicago police officer makes a stop, the officer is required to fill out a "contact card" collecting information about the person who was stopped and why the stop took place. The ACLU's review of a randomly selected number of contact cards from selected months in 2012 and 2013 found that in half of all stops reviewed the officer failed to record a legally sufficient reason for initiating the stop.

In a number of other instances, police stated that they stopped someone for a reason that was unrelated to criminal activity (associating with others who were suspicious, for example) or asserting that someone "matched a description," without any explanation of how or what description was matched.

In spite of this poor performance, the city reported that it has no record of police officers receiving additional training after the academy in proper procedures for stop and frisks—training that seems to be needed greatly.


What this data show should be a wake-up call for residents of the city. CPD is engaging in wholesale stop-and-frisks of African American youth, without any link to criminal activity in most cases. These stops don't make us safer, they simply drive a wedge further between the police and the public they serve.

Equally troubling is that the city's poor record-keeping about stop-and-frisk has resulted in a lack of transparency and accountability. The city only records information about stops if there is no arrest or charges. Stops that result in arrest are not identifiable, so the rate of innocent persons stopped cannot be ascertained.

In New York, which does keep such data, 88 percent of persons stopped were innocent (they were not arrested or issued a summons). Also, Chicago records no information about frisks, which prevents the city from computing the rate of frisks resulting in the seizure of contraband. For example, in New York, which records frisk data, only 2 percent of the frisks turned up weapons.

The ACLU of Illinois offers a four-point plan for fixing this problem without the turmoil and litigation that marked the process in New York. The ACLU's proposal includes:

• Require police to collect data on all frisks and make the data public to be analyzed and assessed;

• Require police to collect data on all stops and make the data public to be analyzed and assessed;

• Require regular training for officers on legal requirements for stop-and-frisks; and,

• Require police officers to issue a receipt for every pedestrian stop, with the officer's name, the time of the encounter, the place of the encounter and the reason for the encounter–making it possible to facilitate a civilian complaint regarding the encounter.

"The data makes clear that stop-and-frisk is a problem in Chicago and needs to be reform," said the ACLU's Grossman. "The city has an opportunity to make modest fixes now, rather than risk further alienation with large swaths of the public. Policing in Chicago ought to encourage community involvement, rather than create additional resentment."

Karen Sheley is senior staff counsel at the ACLU of Illinois.

Read the report:

In a study released March 23, 2015 the ACLU says that Chicago officers last summer conducted more than 250,000 stops of people who weren't arrested. ACLU

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