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‘DWB’ a traffic violation?

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:59AM



It’s called “driving while black,” or DWB.

That’s a troubling term for a motorist who is stopped by police because of his or her skin color, not for speeding or breaking a traffic law.

Black motorists have told the Better Government Association and FOX 32 News that it’s a common occurrence in predominantly white Evergreen Park. But village officials deny that, and there’s no clear evidence that Evergreen Park police are racial profiling.

But the suburb’s widening gulf between the number of white and minority traffic stops is troubling to some civil rights experts and is drawing attention to police practices. Such frequent stops also raise questions about whether the town is out to raise revenue by targeting and imposing fines on minority drivers.

More than 93,000 minority drivers, mostly blacks, were stopped in Evergreen Park from 2004 to 2011, compared to 41,331 whites during the same period, according to Illinois Department of Transportation data analyzed by FOX 32 News and the BGA.

What’s more, as the total number of traffic stops in Evergreen Park increased over that eight-year span, the number of whites who were pulled over remained flat at about 5,000 a year, while the number of minorities rose sharply to 14,656 in 2011 from 9,600 in 2004, according to IDOT.

“The data shows some real red flags,” said University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, an expert on civil rights and police accountability. “Unlike the rest of Illinois, racial disparity (in stops) is going up in Evergreen Park.”

FOX 32 News reported last month that Evergreen Park police were engaging in a controversial and possibly dangerous practice — offering drivers a break on traffic tickets if they helped cops find illegal handguns. The motorists who were interviewed believed they were singled out because of race.

Mayor James Sexton declined to be interviewed for this story. So did Police Chief Michael Saunders, though he issued a statement defending his department’s conduct and emphasis on traffic patrols, a tactic he credits with keeping the crime rate low.

“Many other crimes are detected using these methods, including identifying a large amount of drivers with suspended, revoked or expired licenses,” Saunders says in the statement. “These identifications multiply the instance of recovered weapons, illegal drugs and individuals with various arrest warrants and other criminal acts that would normally go undetected.”

One village official denied that it’s using traffic stops as a revenue generator. But traffic stops help stoke the village treasury. Traffic-related fines in Evergreen Park generated about $375,000 in fiscal 2011, up from about $335,000 in 2010, according to the village.

Amid statewide concerns about racial profiling, then-state Sen. Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation in 2003 that required Illinois police agencies to document the race of all drivers who are pulled over, why they were stopped and the outcome of the stops.

The first Illinois Traffic Stop Statistical Study was released in 2005 by IDOT. Each town is assigned an estimated minority driving population, a benchmark intended to show who’s on the streets at a given time. For example, if a town’s estimated minority driving population is 90 percent, it makes sense that most of the stops involve minorities.

Calculating the benchmark is challenging, experts agree, as driving populations are fluid and can vary on a daily and even hourly basis. The racial makeup of the town is just one factor in determining the benchmark.

In Evergreen Park, about 67 percent of its 19,832 residents are white and 20 percent are black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the IDOT study says the suburb’s estimated minority driving population is 62.6 percent because the areas of Chicago that surround Evergreen Park on three sides are “heavily minority.”

Saunders argues in a letter to IDOT that the town’s minority driving population is even higher, the reason nearly 75 percent of stops involved minority drivers in 2010 and 2011.

Even so, some black drivers say they feel targeted.

“In Evergreen Park, if you’re black, you’re going to get stopped,” said David Lowery, founder and chief executive of the nonprofit Living & Driving While Black Foundation.

Lowery, 55, believes he was a victim of racial profiling in March 2011. He was pulled over and ticketed for speeding by an Evergreen Park officer. But Lowery, who is black and once headed the south suburban chapter of the NAACP, contends that he did nothing wrong and was targeted because of his race. He complained to Saunders and the ticket, at the chief’s request, was dismissed, Lowery said.



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