Calling it a "work in progress," Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley gave his qualified blessing to the first-ever Illinois Traffic Stop Study, a racial profiling study recently released by the State of Illinois. The study data from the first year of the planned 4-year study indicates that Oak Park police stopped minority drivers at a 1.43 ratio to their representation in the population. River Forest, the study said, stopped minorities at a 1.27 ratio. Both ratios are higher than the statewide ratio of 1.15. According to the Illinois Traffic Stop Study, both Oak Park and River Forest have a 43.47 percent baseline minority driving population. But both Tanksley and River Forest Police Chief Nicholas Weiss say the number of minorities driving on their streets is much higher than that.
Tanksley pointed out that the benchmark for the Oak Park study was set using 2000 Federal Census data from 22 municipalities located within the boundaries of the Circuit Court of Cook County's Fourth District, which includes Oak Park. That baseline, he said, doesn't account for a large population of overwhelmingly African-American drivers adjacent to Oak Park, and thus is likely to inaccurately reflect the actual driving population with which Oak Park officers must deal.
Using an artificially low baseline percentage, both Tanksley and Weiss contend, causes their majority-to-minority ratios to skew higher.
"It doesn't take into account that we border a major metropolitan area on two sides," said Tanksley. Among the data not included in the baseline are the demographics of Chicago's 15th and 25th Police Districts, which account for fully one half of Oak Park's bordering communities, both of which are in the First Municipal Court District, and which are also overwhelmingly African American.
Weiss on Monday echoed Tanksley's concern about the accuracy of the size and make-up of the River Forest driving population, saying that to ignore the broader areas from which drivers using River Forest streets may likely originate "would give a misleading picture."
Weiss said that his department, like Oak Park, considers vehicular traffic within its municipal boundaries to originate in an area outside the study's boundaries. In River Forest's case, Weiss said that area is roughly bounded by Belmont Avenue on the north, Cicero Avenue on the east, Cermak Road on the south and Mannheim Road on the west.
Tanksley said another problem in compiling accurate data for the study is the fact that police officers are expressly prohibited from asking the race of drivers they stop. Instead, Tanksley said, they must speculate as to a driver's race, something he contends can lead to errors in the data. Additionally, he said, nearly a fourth?#34;24 percent?#34;of all stops were in what he termed a "very broad" catch-all category of "Asians." That category consisted of a wide array of ethnicities, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, as well as Middle Eastern individuals from such countries as India, Pakistan and Iraq.
Still, Tanksley said he was satisfied that Oak Park police are taking a fair and balanced approach to traffic stops.
"Officers here know that at the end of the day their supervisor is reviewing their traffic stop conduct to assure that there is no pattern of biased policing."
Tanksley stressed that his department had only one formal complaint last year regarding racial profiling. That complaint was ruled unfounded, largely on the basis of the fact that the car pulled over had dark windows, and the officer could not have known the driver was African American.