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Distrust of the criminal justice system in general, and the police in particular, is widespread in minority communities around Chicago. As a task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel reported this spring, “Racism and maltreatment at the hands of the police have been consistent complaints from communities of color for decades.” In April, Injustice Watch launched an examination into the unequal treatment afforded people of color at critical points in the criminal justice system. This is the first of those reports.
Darnell Smith, a 38-year-old construction worker and father of four, was standing across the street from his home in the predominately African American Englewood neighborhood in early March when two Chicago police officers approached him, told him they were looking for a gun used in a nearby shooting, searched him, and ran his name for outstanding warrants.
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Finding neither weapons nor warrants, the officers handed him a receipt documenting the stop, as required by a 2015 state law, and went on their way.
Smith knows the routine well. Officers stop him, ask him about guns and/or drugs, do quick searches, and then leave. It was the fifth time that Smith had been stopped since May 2012.
The city has paid Smith $7,000 to settle two federal lawsuits he brought contending that two of the earlier stops had violated his civil rights; he now is among 38 plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Chicago police department’s policy of stop-and-frisk.
Sitting with Smith in a recent interview, Antonio M. Romanucci, the lead attorney in the class-action, interjected: “He didn’t say it but I’ll say it. Yes, it is racist.”
Cases like Smith’s have caused African Americans to deeply mistrust the criminal justice system in general, and the Chicago Police Department in particular — mistrust that veritably exploded into a series of protests after the release last November of a dash-camera video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting teenager Laquan McDonald, a teenager.
Citywide, African Americans, like Smith, have been stopped, questioned, and searched tens of thousands of times. A recent report by the Police Accountability Task Force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel found that in 2013 four times more African American and Latino drivers were searched than white drivers, even though guns and/or drugs were found on white drivers twice as often. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois found that of roughly 250,000 stops that did not lead to arrests during a four-month period in 2014, 72 percent were African Americans, who constitute only 32 percent of the city population.
Although the stops were concentrated in predominantly African American neighborhoods, the ACLU found that even in white neighborhoods the police disproportionately stopped African Americans, often without legal justification.
“What’s actually more striking than anything else is just how normal and ordinary it has become for black students to be stopped under the suspicion of being a criminal,” said Craig B. Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who specializes in civil rights and police accountability issues. “[It] happens regularly to many kids . . . sometimes multiple times a week.”
To avoid litigation, the city agreed last year to provide better training of officers and require them to keep records of all stops beginning January 1, 2016, showing which ended in arrest and which did not. In the wake of the agreement and the Laquan McDonald controversy, the number of stops has plunged – to 39,778 from January 1 through May 15, 2016, down 84.3 percent from 252,698 in the same period a year earlier. Only 6,307 of this year’s stops, or 15.8 percent, ended in arrests, city records show.
The ACLU agreement probably is not the only factor behind the drop in stops. Dean Angelo Sr., president of the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, contends that in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald shooting, the time-honored anti-crime political mantra has given way to an anti-police mantra that discourages some officers from making stops because they fear being accused of racism. That, he said, will in turn put the public at increased risk.
Chicago police spokesman Frank Giancamilli says that the number of stops has begun to rise slowly in recent weeks, but that the number will remain far below the previous level, as officers focus on “making sure we’re stopping people for the right reasons.”
If Giancamilli is correct, stopping people for the right reasons will be welcomed by the accountability task force, which found “substantial evidence that people of color – particularly African Americans – have had disproportionately negative experiences with the police over an extended period of time” and “that these experiences continue today [as a result of]. . . practices that disproportionately affect and often show little respect for people of color.”
Jonathan M. Smith, who until 2015 was responsible for investigating patterns and practices of troubled police departments for the U.S. Department of Justice, says that aggressive use of stop-and-frisk “creates this enormous rift in communities and a real unwillingness to call and cooperate with police when something serious is happening.”
While aggressive policing alienates communities, considerable research shows that it also deters crime. Based on an exhaustive study, Franklin Zimring, a noted criminologist and law professor at the University of California Berkeley, attributes New York City’s drop in felonies, which was roughly twice the average decline nationally from 1990 through 2010, solely to the city’s proactive policing policies.
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and veteran New York City police officer, says there is no question that aggressive policing reduces crime. As he puts it, “If you don’t do that in a city like Chicago, especially now, the bad guys are absolutely aware it’s free reign.”
The situation poses a dilemma for city officials, who at once hope to rebuild public trust in the police and aggressively fight crime, which is expected to rise as temperatures rise this summer.
“Striking that right balance is important,” says Lori Lightfoot, president of the Chicago Police Board and member of the accountability task force, who hastens to add that the challenge is to do it “in a way that engages, and doesn’t alienate, communities.”
Not all stops recorded
Defense attorneys say that for years the police have made untold numbers of unrecorded stops — so-called “dark stops.”
In May, the city agreed to pay $40,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by Larry Nelson, the 24th Ward Republican committeeman, over an incident that police at first denied took place. After Nelson’s attorney, Irene K. Dymkar, discovered that police had run Nelson’s name through the Secretary of State’s database to check for warrants – leaving no doubt that they had stopped him — the officers revised their story, contending that they had no recollection of the stop.
Dark stops apparently are quite frequent. Dymkar found that on the very night Nelson was stopped, police ran 44 other warrant checks on individuals for whom there was no record of stops. Dykmar says she has several other clients who claim to have been stopped and searched, although no records of the encounters exist.
Not documenting stops “is a really big problem,” says Dymkar.
Romanucci, the lawyer representing Smith and others in the federal class-action, says the number of dark stops may be substantial, given that several of his clients report that they never have seen police fill out forms during or after searches.
Police stops based on “reasonable suspicion”
Although the Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures, the Supreme Court has struggled for decades to define what is and isn’t permissible, resulting in uncertainty that officers on the street sometimes find confounding.
As Mark Iris, a former executive director of the Chicago Police Board, puts it: “Even a conscientious, well‐intentioned officer is going to be hard‐pressed sometimes to keep up with the nuances of what is and what is not a legal search. And unlike the justices on the Supreme Court, they don’t have months to deliberate this with a squad of law clerks.”
In a case known as Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court held in 1968 that officers may approach individuals on the street, pat them down for weapons based on “reasonable suspicion” – a lesser standard than “probable cause” – and, if the officers feel what may be weapons, they may conduct full searches.
The case involved a Cleveland police detective who suspected that three men were casing a downtown store to rob. The detective questioned the men, then patted them down, and, feeling what he thought were weapons on two of the men, searched them and found guns. Those men, John W. Terry and Richard Chilton, were convicted of carrying concealed weapons. In an opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court upheld the convictions, legalizing what became known as “Terry stops.”
Subsequent cases have extended the search authority beyond street stops first to traffic stops if officers reasonably suspect that drivers or passengers in cars might be armed, and then to car compartments if there is reasonable suspicion that occupants are armed and dangerous. In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld a Nevada law requiring individuals to identify themselves during Terry stops, but the ruling left it up to the states to create such laws. About half of the states have enacted such laws.
The latest case came last month when the Supreme Court held 5-3, with a majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, that even if officers lack reasonable suspicion justifying pat-downs, stops and seizures nevertheless become legal if the officers discover outstanding warrants against those stopped.
In an extraordinary dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor objected that “Many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches,” adding that “anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner” and that, although those stopped in this case were white, “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny…”
Sotomayor continued: “For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’— instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger — all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them. . .
“By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone. . . that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral [prison-like island] state, just waiting to be cataloged.”
Chicago police long have tested the limits
The ACLU study that led to the city’s 2015 agreement to do a better job training officers and keeping relevant records also documented long-standing problems of Chicago police stopping and searching persons on the street without reasonable suspicion.
In the 1980s, the Chicago police arrested tens of thousands of youths for “disorderly conduct,” mostly in African American and Latino neighborhoods, and then not bothering to show up in court when the cases were scheduled.
In the 1990s, the police arrested tens of thousands of youths on “gang loitering” charges, mostly African Americans or Latinos, until a lawsuit brought by the ACLU caused the law to be declared unconstitutional.
In 2003, the ACLU brought a lawsuit on behalf a group that included Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis, contending they had been subjected to a series of humiliating stops. As part of the lawsuit, the police agreed to begin keeping records of the stops and the basis for making them.
Despite that agreement, the ACLU found last year that officers often failed to offer adequate explanations of their supposed “reasonable suspicion.”
One place where police stops appear to have been extensive is Garfield Park, on the west side. The Rev. Paul Jakes, of the New Tabernacle of Faith Baptist Church, says he has seen as many as 25 men lined up against a wall, awaiting pat downs by police that yielded nothing illegal.
“It was a great inconvenience to many citizens that just so happened to be black,” Jakes adds. “Sure enough, anyone that was African American, whether he was an attorney or preacher or school teacher would be subject to the same.”
Police union president Angelo says the disparity in arrests from one neighborhood to another is based not on race, but on the fact a larger number of police are deployed to high- crime areas.
But the data collected by the ACLU show that even in police districts where residents are predominately white, such as the Near North and Town Hall districts, more than half of the stops during the summer of 2014 were of African Americans.
Kimberly Whitehead-Riles, a 51-year-old FedEx security guard, was riding in a Chevy Cobalt driven by her then 23-year-old son shortly before 10 p.m. on September 15, 2013, when police pulled them over in the Chatham neighborhood.
The ostensible reason for the stop was that the car’s lights weren’t on — which seemed unlikely because the car was equipped with lights that automatically came on at dusk.
Whitehead-Riles says that one officer ordered them out of the car, demanded to know where their guns and drugs were, and proceeded to ransack the car, finding neither guns nor drugs.
But when police discovered her son was driving on a suspended license, he was arrested and one officer got into the car, apparently to impound it, and sped away, causing Whitehead-Riles to fall and strike her head, rendering her unconscious.
Someone summoned a Fire Department ambulance, which took her to John H. Stroger Hospital, where she awoke while being treated for a gash on her forehead that required eight stitches to close.
Whitehead-Riles says her should not have been driving on a suspended license and, “If he’s wrong, he’s wrong, but to treat me like my life didn’t matter, it really hurt.”
In April 2014, Whitehead-Riles filed a lawsuit in federal court against five officers involved in the incident.
In May, the city agreed settle to pay $30,500 to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of Whitehead-Riles for what her attorney, Jeffrey Granich, called a “horrendous injury.” She still has a scar that she covers by pulling her hair over her right eye.
Whitehead-Riles, who grew up in Chicago but now lives Indiana, says rarely comes comes to the city, where her sister and other family members still live, because she is afraid of police.
“It’s kind of hard to be away from the family,” she says.
— Emily Hoerner
Darnell Smith, the 38-year-old construction worker whom police stopped and searched in Englewood in March, received $3,500 each to settle two federal lawsuits brought on his behalf as a result of earlier stop-frisk incidents.
The first occurred in May 2012, when, according to Smith, he was “held at bay” by a Taser-wielding officer while another officer checked for outstanding warrants and demanded to know if Smith had any guns.
The second occurred the following September, when Smith alleged that four officers in an unmarked Chevy Tahoe pulled over a car in which he was riding with two friends, according to the lawsuit. The officers handcuffed all three occupants and searched the car, finding nothing.
In addition, Smith says that in May 2013, police searched him and several friends with whom he has standing on a porch in Englewood. After finding that no one in the group was armed, the officers left.
Then in October 2014, Smith alleges that two officers approached him as he stood outside his home awaiting delivery of food had ordered, searched him, questioned him about narcotics, and again moved on.
Both the 2013 and 2014 incidents are part of the pending federal class-action suit in which Smith is among the 38 named plaintiffs.
By the time police searched him in March, claiming they were looking for weapons used in a shooting, Smith thus was well aware of the drill.
“Even though in my opinion they’re committing an act of wrongdoing,”says Smith, “I still give them respect, you know, because as you see on the news almost every other day those situations can get out of hand.”
He says that many residents of Englewood fear the police, who could improve the situation “if the stop-and-frisk were only to be based off facts, instead of them jumping out – because those are people’s children that they are manhandling like that— it would probably regain the public’s trust.”
— Emily Hoerner
Pares Ratliff, at the time a 23-year-old night manager at a River North grocery store, was on the way to buy diapers for his son in June 2009 when he stopped at a gas station in the Austin neighborhood to fill his low tires with air. He was crouched down, filling a tire, when Chicago Police Officers James Carroll and Brian Murphy pulled up in an unmarked car.
Carroll and Murphy claimed that Ratliff held up the air hose and threatened to kill them unless they allowed him to continue filling the tires, and Ratliff was charged with aggravated assault.
The charge was dismissed when Carroll, the arresting officer, failed to appear in court.
Ratliff then brought a federal lawsuit, offering a very different account of what happened.
In his telling, the officers approached him and said they had a warrant for his arrest, ordering him to get into their car, whereupon he objected that there was no basis for them to arrest him. Ratliff asked them to reimburse him the 75 cents he had spent to fill his tires, which he could not finish because they interrupted him.
“The officers’ story was literally that he held the air hose up to the officers and said, ‘If you don’t let me fill up my tires with air, I’ll kill you,’” said Jared Kosolgad, Ratliff’s lawyer. “Their whole story was they saw him bend down and they thought he was hiding drugs.”
Video footage at the gasoline station supported Ratliff’s version of events. In November 2012, a jury awarded Ratliff $30,000 in damages from the city, plus punitive damages of $5,000 from Murphy and $15,000 from Carroll, plus 75-cents for the air.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Dow Jr., who presided at the trial, rejected a city motion to set aside the verdict, holding that “there was no basis other than ill-will and spite for arresting and prosecuting [Ratliff] because he may have said something sarcastic to [the officers].”
Ratliff says he considers himself lucky that the encounter didn’t turn out worse for him. “That is kind of scary, you know, when you see how [the police] can just switch the narrative and make it whatever they want to make it,” he said. “Because at a point I was actually surprised that I won. Like, when you see how they just twist it . . . you almost feel powerless.”
— Adrienne Hurst
The night of February 11, 2008, Larry Nelson, then 46, after losing an election to be Democratic committeeman of Chicago’s 24th Ward, stopped at a Humboldt Park gasoline station he says he usually avoided because of gang activity. But that night, it looked quiet, and it was convenient
Just as Nelson finished filling his tank, he says, two squad cars turned on their emergency lights flashing has he pulled out of the station, and four officers ordered him out of his car at gunpoint. When one officer pointed a gun at his face, says Nelson, he thought he was going to die adding “my whole life just flashed before my eyes.”
When the officers saw campaign signs in Nelson’s back seat with both his and Barack Obama’s names on them—left over from his recent unsuccessful election bid, their attitude changed, according to Nelson – but the damage had already been done.
He brought a federal lawsuit against the four officers – Ronald Lis, Elizabeth Wilson, Richard Novotny, and Bradley Ruzak – alleging they stopped and searched him without reasonable suspicion that he was doing anything wrong.
At first the officers denied that the incident occurred, but Nelson’s lawyer, Irene Dymkar, obtained records showing that the officers had run a warrant check on Nelson at the very time he said the incident occurred.
“They just went in front of the judge in federal court and lied that they’d never seen me a day in their life,” says Nelson.
Faced with the warrant check records, the officers claimed that that did not recall the incident, but would not have done what Nelson accused them of in any case.
The jury that heard the case ruled for the officers. But on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit sent the case back for retrial, ruling that the judge had erred by admitting evidence that long ago Nelson had been arrested in cases that had not resulted in a convictions.
Rather than retry the case, the city agreed in June to settle the case for $40,000.
It was not Nelson’s only negative experience with police stops.
He earlier was awarded $35,000 for a wrongful stop and excessive force as a result of an August 2008 stop during which Nelson alleged that his shoulder was injured when an Officer Danny Salgado handcuffed him roughly when he asked why the officer wanted to speak to him. The Independent Police Review Authority investigated a different incident involving Salgado and another officer for allegedly conducting an illegal search and, according to the Invisible Institute police project, concluded the investigation with “violation noted.”
Previously, Nelson was awarded $34,000 as a result of a November 2005 incident in which Nelson was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon after his car and North Lawndale home were searched. He had been acquitted in that case.
Nelson says he gives advice to others who are stopped and searched by police without reasonable suspicion: “Give them their respect, don’t argue with them, because you can’t beat the police on the streets anyway, but you can beat them in that courtroom.”
— Emily Hoerner