Chicago police are arresting thousands more Black drivers after traffic stops than they report to state regulators

A Black man in a white t-shirt stands next to a dark red Jeep Grand Cherokee, somberly looking off to his right.

Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Shelbert Ramsey poses for a portrait with his car before 6 a.m. after finishing his midnight shift at a restaurant in Austin on July 29, 2022. Ramsey was arrested by Chicago police officers on a gun-possession charge after a traffic stop that wasn't reported to state regulators. The charges were later dropped.

This story is part of a series looking at gun-possession arrests and prosecutions in Cook County, published in partnership with Block Club Chicago and The Circuit. Read the first story here.

Shelbert Ramsey never thought a simple traffic stop could leave him in a desperate legal fight to stay out of prison.

Ramsey, 37, was driving through West Garfield Park one afternoon last summer when he saw an old friend and pulled over briefly to say hello, he said. When he pulled away a few seconds later, he saw police lights flashing behind him.

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“Their reason for pulling me over was for obstruction of traffic. There was no one behind me, no one around me. There was no traffic at all,” Ramsey said. ”I feel they pulled me over illegally, and they were making up excuses (to search me).”

Ramsey said the officers asked him to get out of the car and searched the vehicle after claiming they had seen him buy heroin. But the arrest report makes no mention of an alleged drug buy and says no drugs were found.

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This story is part of The Circuit, a joint project of the nonprofit news organizations Better Government Association and Injustice Watch, in partnership with the civic tech consulting firm DataMade.

Ramsey had a gun under his seat, which he said he carried for protection when he did overnight custodial work in a rough part of the West Side. He had a valid Firearm Owner Identification card that he had recently renewed, though his concealed carry license had been revoked without his knowledge when his FOID card had briefly lapsed during the pandemic, he said.

Officers found the lapsed concealed carry license when they ran Ramsey’s driver’s license and arrested him after they found the gun. He was jailed for three days and charged with unauthorized use of a weapon, a felony that carries a penalty of up to three years in prison. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case against Ramsey. But he said it was traumatizing to be arrested and incarcerated after a traffic stop that he felt happened only because he is Black.

“It’s terrible … because you’ve got these people who can really play with your life, take you from your family, your job and throw you in jail for nothing. Then when you get out of jail, you don’t have anything. You’ve got a record, and you can’t get anything,” Ramsey said.

According to data the Chicago Police Department is required to report to state regulators, traffic stops like this are extremely rare. The police department reported in 2021 that officers searched drivers in only about 1% of all traffic stops, and found weapons in one-tenth of 1% of stops.

But Ramsey’s traffic stop and gun arrest weren’t reported to the state — and neither were thousands of other traffic stops that ended in gun-possession arrests since 2014, according to an analysis by Block Club Chicago and Injustice Watch.

The police department reported finding weapons in only 388 traffic stops in 2021, according to data reported to the state as part of the Illinois Traffic Stop Study. But our analysis of gun arrests that year found that more than 2,300 people were arrested on gun charges and also cited for a minor traffic violation during the same encounter, indicating that the arrest likely started with a traffic stop.

Chicago police officials did not respond to specific questions about the data discrepancies sent on multiple occasions over the past several months. A department spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement that the “Chicago Police Department is continuously working to strengthen its data collection and analysis. By improving our data collection, we can identify patterns that can help inform training and department policy development.”

The data discrepancies are coming to light at a time when the total number of traffic stops Chicago police reported to the state has risen exponentially, from just 85,000 in 2015 to more than 600,000 in 2019, before dipping again to about 350,000 per year since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Black drivers were pulled over at five times the rate of white drivers in 2021, according to the traffic stop study data.

But the underreported stops, searches and gun arrests suggest the impact of traffic stops is weighing even more heavily on Black drivers than the traffic stop study data suggest. About 85% of the adults arrested on gun-possession charges and cited for a traffic violation in 2021 were Black.

Rickey Hendon, a former state senator who helped write the traffic stop study legislation, said the data discrepancies dangerously shroud the true racial disparities of Chicago police’s tactics.

“The purpose of (the study) was so we can see what was happening, and if there’s a negative pattern that was unconstitutional, we could change it,” Hendon said. “How can regulators fix anything if they’re getting incorrect reports from the Chicago Police Department?”

Other police reform advocates warned that the steep jump in traffic stops and the concurrent rise in traffic-stop-related gun arrests suggest that Chicago police could be using pretextual traffic stops as a strategy to search people’s cars to crack down on guns, a practice with murky constitutional legitimacy that is obscured by the misrepresentations in the data of how officers are interacting with drivers, they said.

“What is clear is that some of these traffic stops are being used as nothing but a predicate to have contact with young men of color,” said Illinois ACLU spokesperson Ed Yohnka.

Since 2015, the ACLU has closely followed the surge in traffic stops, which is widely thought to be an unintended result of a landmark ACLU settlement with the city that year that required more detailed reporting about pedestrian stops, which led to a decrease in those stops, also known as “stop-and-frisk.” But if officers are reporting only a small fraction of traffic-stop arrests, it also means Chicago police leadership may be making strategic decisions based on wildly inaccurate data, Yohnka said.

“If officers can seize guns in a traffic stop and then never report the traffic stop, the leadership has no way to form strategies to influence public safety because they have no idea what’s actually going on,” Yohnka said. The inaccurate data is “a missed opportunity of police management to see what’s going on the street and also a missed opportunity for the public to understand how they’re policed,” he said.

Traffic stops and gun arrests both up sharply

An unmarked police car with its lights flashing parked behind a light blue car during a traffic stop. A police officer is leaning into the front seat of the stopped car, which is parked on a dark street.

Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

A Chicago Police officer searches the car of a driver who was briefly detained in the South Loop late at night on June 30, 2021.

At the same time the number of traffic stops by Chicago police has spiked, so has the number of gun-possession arrests. In 2014, Chicago police arrested about 2,500 adults on gun-possession charges. By 2020, gun arrests had more than doubled to over 5,500, with the vast majority of those considered nonviolent gun cases by prosecutors since the gun was never fired.

An increasing proportion of those arrests stem from traffic stops, according to our analysis of gun-possession arrests with an accompanying traffic citation. This analysis likely understates how many people are arrested on gun charges after a traffic stop, since many drivers, including Ramsey, are never even cited for the alleged traffic violation that prompted the stop. The stops and arrests disproportionately occur on the South and West sides.

“In my perspective, doing this job, there is a very, very clear pattern of selective (traffic) enforcement,” said Margaret Armalas, an assistant Cook County public defender who recently co-wrote an opinion piece criticizing Chicago police for their gun-arrest strategy. ​”These are traffic stops that are only being enforced in communities of color. Nobody is getting pulled over in Lincoln Park because they didn’t use a turn signal. This isn’t about safety.”

The Office of the Cook County Public Defender says nearly one-quarter of the felony cases it handles are for nonviolent gun possession. Armalas said the pattern she sees every day in the courtroom suggests that Chicago police have simply replaced stop-and-frisk with potentially unconstitutional traffic stops.

“The problem with underreporting the data is that if we effectively have ‘stop-and-frisk’ in Chicago, then we need to know. Everyone needs to know,” Armalas said. “It’s happening, and it’s unconstitutional and fundamentally unfair, and it’s creating distrust between communities and the police.”

It’s not just that officers are not documenting searches and arrests on their traffic stop contact cards. Rather, officers frequently do not document the traffic stop at all when an arrest is made. An examination of a sample of arrest reports showed that in most gun arrests described in the report as stemming from a traffic stop, there is no matching record in the police department’s traffic stop data, which means the interaction is completely omitted from the traffic stop study.

State Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., who spearheaded efforts to make the traffic stop study permanent, said the inaccuracies in the data reveal an institutional resistance to change and the inability of police leadership to bring the department into compliance with the law.

“You can’t train away someone’s racist heart. What you can do is provide a mirror for an individual to see the biases that they have and the negative impacts that that can have on those interactions,” Sims said.

Ramsey said when officers selectively pull over drivers as a way of finding weapons rather than to promote road safety, it destroys trust in the police.

“I try to avoid (police) as much as possible,” Ramsey said. “I don’t want them to see me, and I don’t want to see them. And it’s terrible for me as a taxpaying citizen (who) ain’t never been in trouble, don’t have a record, to feel like that about police officers.”

This kind of enforcement also affects many people like Ramsey, who are attempting to be in compliance with gun regulations, rather than people actually involved in gun violence, he said.

“They’re just making up illegal reasons to pull people over. I believe that’s what’s going on,” Ramsey said. “They’re trying to find guns any and every way possible, except the right way.”

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