When a story calls Evanston the ‘worst’ …


On primary election day last week a non-profit advocacy group called Injustice Watch posted a story on its website that labeled Evanston as having the “worst” record in the nation for searches following police traffic stops.

A Note on the News

The story was based on a research paper by a University of North Carolina political science professor that the author says has been accepted for publication by the Duke Forum for Law and Social Change, a student-edited publication at the Duke University Law School.

The research paper examined searches following traffic stops by 132 police agencies in 16 states, and, looking only at the number of stops and number of searches by race, calculated that a black motorist stopped by police in Evanston was seven times more likely to be searched than a white motorist stopped by police here.

It was an interesting story that caught my eye, but I decided that it required further research before I’d do a story on the subject for Evanston Now, for the following reasons.

First, the study did not look at the outcomes of searches — whether contraband was found — even though that data is available for Illinois police agencies. Without knowing how frequently a search turns up contraband, it’s impossible to assess whether police are making good decisions about who to search.

Second, the study did not incorporate an assessment of a department’s overall search rate into its evaluation of a good performance. Thus, a department that indiscriminantly searched, say, every fifth driver regardless of race and regardless of probable cause would win a prize for no racial disparity under the criteria used by the North Carolina researcher — even though that department might be subjecting thousands of drivers of all races to pointless searches.

It ended up taking almost a week to put together Evanston Now’s own report on the issue of police stops and race, which we published yesterday.

It compares Evanston to all other police departments in Illinois, using data from reports compiled by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Our study split out two types of searches that had been combined in the North Carolina study — ones conducted by police officers themselves and ones conducted with the aid of a police dog. And we found some strikingly different results across those two search types.

Our story’s findings do not imply that there’s no room for improvement here, but they suggest that, considered in appropriate context, Evanston is probably far from “the worst.”

I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to read our story.

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