This story is part of a series looking at the connection between traffic stops and gun-possession arrests in Cook County, published in partnership with Block Club Chicago. Read the previous stories here.
It was the kind of traffic stop Chicago police made almost a half-million times that year.
Ariel Mayberry was parked at a Washington Heights gas station in May 2020 waiting for his order from the adjoining Sharks Fish & Chicken when two officers approached his car and asked about the tint in his windows. Officers later reported that the 29-year-old hesitated, rolled up the window, and rummaged through the car for a moment before producing his license.
Investigations that expose, influence and inform. Emailed directly to you.
Owing to Mayberry’s “furtive movements,” officers detained him and searched the car. They found an unloaded handgun and a bag of 45-caliber ammunition on the back seat, and a loaded magazine on the floor behind the driver’s seat, according to the police report.
Mayberry, a registered gun owner, said that he had been to the firing range earlier in the day and that his gun was properly stored in a lockbox. But police reported that the gun and ammunition were improperly stored — unlocked and within arm’s reach — and arrested him on charges of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, a felony.
To Chicago police officials, this was a success story. Mayberry’s gun became one of more than 10,000 they reported taking off the streets in 2020. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, former police Superintendent David Brown, and their predecessors have long blamed Chicago’s gun violence on a glut of illegal guns and pointed to gun seizures such as this one as proof that they’re tackling the problem head-on.
To get those guns, police dramatically ramped up traffic enforcement on the city’s South and West sides since 2015, stopping hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino drivers each year — even though only a tiny fraction of stops actually led to the seizure of illegal guns.
A new data analysis by Block Club Chicago and Injustice Watch shows police made hundreds of thousands more stops than they reported to state regulators.
The analysis found Chicago police have made more than 4.5 million traffic stops since 2015. In 2021, the year Chicago police were most successful at finding weapons in cars, officers made 156 traffic stops for every gun arrest.
Critics say the strategy relies on stops unrelated to road safety, leads to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary police interactions that alienate Black and Latino communities, and ensnares legal gun owners such as Mayberry in the criminal justice system for what often amounts to technicalities.
They also maintain that the approach fails to reduce violent crime.
“It’s a terrible strategy. It’s an illegal strategy. It’s an unconstitutional strategy,” said Craig Futterman, clinical professor at University of Chicago Law School and a frequent critic of Chicago police. “Targeting entire communities to stop them and treat them as criminals alienates those who most need support and protection. … That also makes police woefully ineffective at addressing real issues of violence.”
While other cities, including Philadelphia and San Francisco, have reduced traffic stops for minor infractions, recognizing that they can be dangerous for both police and civilians, Chicago has doubled down on the strategy. Chicago police made more than 660,000 traffic stops last year, up nearly 28% from the previous year, according to the analysis of data from the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communication, which receives a call every time an officer makes a traffic stop.
The new findings come amid a tense mayoral runoff election dominated by debates over how to improve public safety and reduce gun violence. When asked if they’d continue the traffic-stop strategy, neither candidate — former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas or Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson — answered the question.
Chicago police officials declined multiple requests for an interview and did not respond directly to questions about the rise in traffic stops or the strategy of using traffic stops to bolster gun recoveries.
But Marc Buslik, who retired in 2019 as police commander of the Town Hall (19th) District on the North Side, said the strategy gets guns off the street and deters drivers from carrying them in the first place.
“The bad guys see we’re out here, but more importantly, the good guys see us out here,” Buslik said. “If people think they’re going to get stopped by police, they presumably aren’t going to be as likely to do illegal activity.”
For Mayberry, who took pride in exercising his Second Amendment right and considers himself one of the “good guys,” the entire situation — the stop, the search, and his arrest — made no sense. He said he had bought a gun in 2018 to protect himself and had always been a responsible gun owner.
“They were really just reaching for an excuse to interact with me,” Mayberry said. “My rights were violated. It really traumatized me.”
After more than a year and a half in court, prosecutors dropped all the charges against Mayberry. A spokesperson for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office did not answer questions about Mayberry’s case.
From ‘stop and frisk’ to traffic stops
The meteoric rise in traffic stops can be traced back to a 2015 legal settlement between Chicago police and the ACLU of Illinois over the department’s use of pedestrian stops as part of a strategy known as “stop and frisk.”
In the years leading up to the settlement, the ACLU found that Chicago police had stopped hundreds of thousands of Black Chicagoans without clear justification, in violation of their constitutional rights.
The settlement in that case required the police department to create a new form for officers to document their reasons for stopping someone and the details of what happened during these so-called “investigatory stops.”
In 2016, the first year the new reports were in use, pedestrian stops fell dramatically, to about 57,000, from more than 330,000 the year before.
Within three years, the rise in traffic stops more than made up the difference. From 2016 to 2019, the number of traffic stops increased by nearly 200,000 each year, before dropping significantly at the start of the pandemic.
Wesley Skogan, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University who recently published a book on stop and frisk in Chicago, said the data show that police simply shifted their interactions in communities of color from pedestrian stops to traffic stops.
“There’s a lot of ways to police the public. Stop and frisk was just one of them,” Skogan said. After the ACLU settlement, “there’s not a shift of locale. There’s not a shift of focus. … It’s simply a different tactic.”
In the past, Chicago police stopped drivers relatively evenly across the city, according to data reported to the Illinois Department of Transportation. (While these numbers are incomplete, they are the only records of traffic stops that consistently include geographic data.) In 2014, the 4th District, covering South Chicago, had the most stops, followed by the 18th District, which includes the affluent neighborhoods of Streeterville, Gold Coast, and Lincoln Park.
But within a few years, the geography of traffic stops in Chicago shifted. Since 2016, Chicago police have made a disproportionate number of traffic stops in Black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West sides, including Austin, Lawndale, Englewood, Garfield Park, South Shore, and Avalon Park, the data show.
Chicago Community Policing Director Glen Brooks admitted in 2018 that Chicago police target traffic enforcement in neighborhoods that struggle with crime. But in 2021, then-Supt. Brown said the concentration of traffic stops in Black neighborhoods were not aimed at stopping other crimes.
Stop and frisk and the police department’s traffic stop approach rely on what’s known as “general deterrence” as a strategy for crime reductions, Skogan said. The idea is that more interactions will create the appearance of a high police presence in certain areas. That, in turn, might deter people from committing crimes. This approach to public safety hinges on “the fear of being stopped,” even if police rarely encounter serious crime, Skogan said.
“You’ve got to have volume so everybody (in the neighborhood) knows somebody who has been stopped,” said Skogan, who noted that the strategy puts a heavy burden on people who have done nothing wrong. “Being innocent — not carrying anything, just going about your business — does not insulate you from being stopped.”
Frank Chapman, an organizer with the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, said there are consequences to making hundreds of thousands of stops in Black neighborhoods. He said Black drivers like him often walk away from police encounters over minor issues feeling racially targeted and harassed. He also pointed to the brutal beating death of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers earlier this year, saying it showed how a routine stop can escalate into a deadly incident with little provocation.
“During the present climate of police violence against Black people, when a Black person is stopped, they more than likely are a little jittery about the whole thing, because it’s so prevalent that people are getting killed as a result of being stopped,” Chapman said.
Are traffic stops effective at reducing gun violence?
Chicago politicians have long pointed to illegal guns as the cause of Chicago’s violence, but the almost singular focus on seizing guns rose under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his first police superintendent, Garry McCarthy.
Roger Bay, a district commander under McCarthy, said the demand for beat cops to recover more guns trickled down through the chain of command “like a game of telephone.” He said he disagreed at times with the “pressure to get numbers” but said the best way to find illegal guns is to have frequent interactions with people.
“You’re not going to sit in your police car waiting for a radio call of a man with a gun and expect he’s still standing there when you get to the call,” said Bay, a 32-year veteran of the department who served as deputy chief of street operations before he retired in 2018. So “you address the small things and you discover the big things.”
But even in their best year, police found guns in just 0.6 percent of stops. Critics say even if police were able to seize significantly more guns, there are simply too many guns in circulation for the strategy to make a dent.
“You’re taking sand from the beach sometimes,” said Charlie Beck, who spent more than eight years as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. He then became interim Chicago police superintendent for five months starting in December 2019.
There’s little data on the number of guns circulating in Chicago. But experts say most unlicensed weapons were initially purchased legally. Statewide, more than 460,000 guns were sold last year alone, according to estimates based on FBI background checks. By that measure, the 12,716 guns Chicago police took off the streets were likely a drop in the bucket.
Robert Vargas, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago who has studied gangs and policing in Chicago, said the department focuses on gun seizures to hide other deficiencies.
“The whole emphasis on guns is just moving the goalposts of evaluation metrics for how the police are performing away from dismal homicide clearance rates and toward metrics like gun seizures to create the appearance of police effectiveness,” said Vargas, who recently wrote about the city’s discourse around guns.
In recent years, Chicago police solved fewer than half of all homicides, well below the national average of 66% and lower than cities like New York and Los Angeles, according to a 2019 Department of Justice report. Killings of Black people are persistently less likely to be solved, and nearly half of all homicide cases closed by Chicago police in 2021 didn’t result in criminal charges, a Sun-Times investigation found.
Beck said gun seizures are one important tool in curbing gun violence, but they can’t be the only one. When the frequency of police encounters weighs too heavily on communities, it erodes their trust in police, he said. And that relationship is the most important factor in solving crimes.
“The long-term solution for reducing gun violence is creating more trust between the police and the neighborhoods impacted by violence,” Beck said.
That challenge will soon fall to a new mayor and whomever he picks to run the Chicago Police Department. Beck cautioned that the incoming administration shouldn’t have shortsighted goals that measure success by the number of gun recoveries or police encounters.
“Recognize this is a decade’s worth of work, to reduce the violence level,” he said.