Evanston police are less likely to search a motorist’s car during a traffic stop and more likely to find contraband when they do than the statewide average.

That’s one finding of an Evanston Now analysis of data on police stops from 2012-2015, the most recent years available, maintained by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

On average Evanston police stop motorists for traffic violations 33 times a day. About five times a month they observe something during a traffic stop that leads them to ask the driver to consent to a search of the car — either by a police officer or a police dog.

And about twice a month the search turns up contraband that leads to criminal charges — for drug or gun possession or some other offense.

There are disparities by race and ethnicity in the frequencies of searches and the frequency of finding contraband both at the state and city level.

For searches that don’t involve a police dog, Evanston police ask to search a white driver’s car only about one-seventh as often as police do statewide. They ask to search a black driver’s car one-third as often, and a Hispanic driver’s car one fourth as often as police do statewide.

Police Chief Richard Eddington says Evanston police are “much more judicious” in requesting consent searches than is typical across the state, largely due to an agreement Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl made in 2009 with the American Civil Liberties Union that required reasonable, articulable suspicion for a request for a consent search.

Evanston police also are more likely to find contraband in a driver’s car, regardless of race, when they do a search than police are elsewhere in Illinois.

But with a much lower consent search rate, Evanston police overall are far less likely to recover contraband in a traffic stop than officers elsewhere. In only 0.04 percent of traffic stops in Evanston did a consent search turn up contraband, compared to 0.25 percent statewide.

Of course there may be differences in driver behavior in different parts of the state that affect those results.

Evanston police are dramatically less likely to call out a police dog to sniff for drugs when a car’s driver is white than if the driver is black or Hispanic.

But they are also dramatically more likely to find contraband when they do a dog search of a white driver’s car than the statewide average.

It’s worth noting that the total number of non-dog consent searches in Evanston over the four year period was 152 and the total number of dog sniff searches was 90 — creating a fairly small base for the racial comparisons.

Richard Eddington.

Eddington says searches during traffic stops are based more “on what happens when you’re up at the car than on who’s in the car.”

“If the officer smells an odor of burnt cannabis coming from the car, that car’s probably going to get searched. If the driver appears to be impaired, you’re going to search for open alcohol. So the observation is a precurser to a search, rather than who the driver is,” he said.

“But who you are becomes more important as we engage in violence reduction activities, the chief said. “If we know you’ve been and continue to be an armed combatant in the ongoing conflicts in the City of Evanston, we’ll look more closely to see if we can develop probable cause or reasonable suspicion for a search.”

Jacquese T. Sims and the recovered gun (EPD photos)

Referring to the arrest last week of Jacquese Sims, the chief said, “The last traffic stop we made where we recovered a gun, when an officer walks up to a car and shines a flashlight through the window, the blue steel of a gun looks way different than the fabric of a floor mat. The officer can pick up that reflection and know what it is.”

While the U.S. Census says that 61 percent of Evanston residents are white, the state traffic stop study assumes that the driving population here is only 52.5 percent white — with more minority drivers entering Evanston from nearby communities.

The state figures show that minority drivers are stopped for traffic violations in Evanston at roughly the same rate as their share of the driving population. By contrast, statewide, minority drivers are about 25 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers.

And white drivers are more likely than minority drivers in Evanston to be issued a traffic citation — with black drivers the least likely to get one.

Drivers who don’t receive a citation are generally issues a written or verbal warning.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. The Peril of Driving While Black in Evanston

    Your conclusions (or at least your emphases) are certainly quite different than those from a study by the University of North Carolina, which assessed traffic stop data from across the United States, in which Evanston was singled out its especially troubling racial disparities. “The Evanston, Illinois Police Department,” the report says, “is seven times more likely to search a black driver.” The report also emphasized that of all the cities they investigated, Evanston consistently tops the charts, and not in a good way: “Evanston Police Department has the highest black-white search rate ratio. On average, in some years, they search blacks about seven times the rate that they search white drivers. They have the highest disparity for three years: 2009, 2010, and 2013. For the entire 2009-2014 range, Evanston PD places in the top ten outliers, with black-white search rate ratios ranging from about six to seven.”

    A recent story from Chicago-based Injustice Watch on this study prompted EPD spokesman Joseph Dugan to say that “these high numbers did surprise me.” It’s more than disappointing that it took an investigation based in another state to reveal this troubling reality to our own police leadership. But now that we know, these statistics should be, in fact, shocking to our police department, and to all our city officials, and should prompt immediate action to address them. And certainly it is something that both Mayoral candidates should be asked to respond to.

    1. Seven times more likely?

      Just out of curiosity, how much more likely to be murdered is someone who is black in Evanston than someone who is white?  How much more likely is someone who is black to be the offender (in cleared cases) in a murder than someone who is white?  Let’s go back ten years.  What are the numbers?

    2. North Carolina Study

      Thank you for this reply. I too found some of the emphases in this article confusing and unclear, perhaps because the graphs can be interpreted in different ways. I would very much like to see the North Caolina study and/or the “Injustice Watch” story presented in these pages.  Perhaps you could link to them?

      1. UNC study

        Hi Jan,

        Links to the UNC study and the story it spawned are included in this story Evanston Now published on Tuesday.

        — Bill

      2. links are available

        Jan, there are also links to both the NC study and the Injustice Watch study in my comment — just click on the blue text in the comment. Take a look: both are worth reading. 

  2. Traffic stops in Evanston

    Hi Bill:  

    Thank you for your detailed reporting on this issue.  It clarifies some issues that were raised by the UNC study.  

    This is my take-away from your analysis.  First off according to your charts 99% of the drivers of any race are not searched.  This means that the normal driving experience in Evanston is not to be searched which as it should be.  We are not a police state.  However in a very small number of cases the police believe there is reasonable cause to search.  According to your charts in about roughly 40% of these cases they recover contraband.  This suggests to me that the searches are not “unreasonable”.

    The next question is why is there a large difference in the racial make up of the searches.  There is not a clear answer to this question however the explaination may be related to another story in Evanston Now which shows that there is a significant racial component to the crime rate.

    If you believe that this summary is not correct please let me know.

    1. Traffic stops

      Hi Dan,

      Good recap.

      I think one thing that’s still a little unclear is what percentage of the searches that are conducted result from intelligence gained about somebody’s possible criminal activities before the stop is made, and how many of them result from observations an officer makes once a stop is underway.

      This could be — for example — the difference between a convicted felon posting to Facebook that he’s out to get an enemy who dissed him versus an officer catching a whiff of pot being smoked as he approaches the car.

      More detail about that than what’s available from the published IDOT reports would be helpful.

      We need to be confident that cars aren’t being searched just because the driver is a young black guy — even though some young black guys are disproportionately likely to be involved in criminal activity.

      — Bill

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