2023 Topical Reporting: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Identity, Small Newsroom finalist

Chicago Police Are Arresting Thousands More Black Drivers After Traffic Stops Than They Report

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In August 2021, the state of Illinois quietly released a report showing Chicago police were stopping Black drivers at a hugely disproportionate rate compared to white drivers. The state was legally required to collect that data and release it, but it didn’t publicize the findings, so the report generated little interest among most reporters — but Block Club reporter Pascal Sabino recognized something was seriously amiss with the stops.

Sabino wrote an initial story on the findings, speaking to expert sources who identified a key issue at play: systemic racism, which led to police targeting Black drivers more than others. The story wasn’t just about the release of a state report; it was about how data showed problematic, potentially racist policing.

Sabino knew there was even more to this rich trove of data. He dug deeper.

Sabino used FOIA to obtain more than 380,000 data points. For stories published in 2021 and 2022, he analyzed and mapped the data to see the trends: Chicago police were undoubtedly stopping Black drivers more than others, as well as drivers in majority-Black neighborhoods — but they were rarely stopping drivers in the majority-white neighborhoods many Chicago officers live in. Sources said the data showed racism and favoritism in policing and traffic stops.

Pascal’s reporting also showing Chicago police were arresting thousands more Black drivers after these traffic stops than they were reporting.

The city’s police superintendent, faced with Sabino’s findings, admitted the department was saturating majority-Black neighborhoods with police and pulling over drivers for little reason beyond hoping they could find something that would get the driver in trouble. The goal was to prevent violent crime, he said.

But expert sources said the strategy clearly wasn’t working — violence in Chicago has skyrocketed in recent years, and very few drivers who were being pulled over were being ticketed. And the policy also raises questions about if the Chicago Police Department is violating people’s constitutional rights.

Though Sabino’s reporting was based in data, he spoke to everyday Chicagoans who had been pulled over and who had suffered due to the Police Department’s strategies. They lived in fear of being stopped, no longer trusted police and were suffering from being disproportionately burdened by tickets. His work put a human face to the negative consequences of problematic policing in Chicago.