By law, police need to have a reason to formally stop someone. Here officers stop several men after a 2011 south-side shooting.
  • John H. White/Sun-Times Media
  • By law, police need to have a reason to formally stop someone. Here officers stop several men after a 2011 south-side shooting.

About quarter to eight on the evening of May 21, 2011, two Chicago police officers noticed a young black man they deemed suspicious near the corner of Iowa and Pulaski. The problem, as they saw it, was that he didn’t seem to be doing anything.

The officers were part of a unit that roamed high-crime sections of the city, looking for signs of trouble before it boiled over into violence—as it often did in that part of West Humboldt Park, which had been used as an open-air drug market for a generation. In their view, the skinny kid in the white T-shirt was “loitering in a high narcotics area known for narcotic sales,” as they later wrote in their arrest report. They decided to approach him “to conduct a field interview.”

The question of when police are allowed to formally stop and interview citizens was the central issue in the recent stop-and-frisk ruling in New York. After New York City’s practices were found to be unconstitutionally based on racial profiling, some police and politicians there warned that their city could turn into a bloody war zone like Chicago. Officials here responded that crime in Chicago is at the lowest level in decades, even though our police happen to comply with the law.

Unfortunately, sound bites don’t prevent crime, and the story is more complicated than either side wanted to admit. Chicago police, like their counterparts in New York and every other big city, have their own procedures for stopping certain people in certain communities and looking for guns, drugs, gang ties, or any other signs of criminality. The policies in Chicago may be less visibly flawed than New York’s, but they cause the same tensions between public safety and personal liberty.

By law, police need to have a reason to stop and interview someone. But not much of one—all that’s required is “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity, which allows for wide discretion. Police can’t say someone is suspicious just because he’s standing on the street, but if it’s a street known for drug activity and he’s been out there for two hours while six buses drove by, that might be another story. Cops have even more latitude in high-crime areas, where suspicion can be justified by “nervous, evasive behavior,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If police suspect the person may be armed or potentially poses a threat, they may also conduct a protective pat down, or frisk. If they have evidence of a crime, they’re allowed to conduct a full search and make an arrest.

Veteran Chicago police say it’s their job to interact with people and recognize when they have a good—and legal—reason to conduct a more formal interview. “I could be driving around, and they give what I call the fish eye,” explains one police supervisor. “You know something’s up. That’s when you want to inquire a little more.”

He stresses that while police want to be aggressive, they’re hardly looking for a reason to frisk people. “Coppers want to go out there and catch the bad guys. It’s fun. But you don’t want to mess with legitimate people. It’s a waste of time. And [frisking] can be disgusting—some people are dirty.”

Chicago police make hundreds of thousands of stops each year, primarily in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. In most cases, they don’t find any evidence of a crime. But under police department rules, officers are required to keep a record of every interview or pat down they conduct that doesn’t yield an arrest. These so-called “contact cards” include the address and phone number of the person interviewed, as well as tattoos, gang affiliation, and a description of the reason for the stop. The information goes into a computer database that police use to track crime trends and who’s hanging out with whom.

Citing a reason for the stop is critical. Under New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, officers are required to fill out similar forms. The often sparse reasoning for thousands of stops over the last few years—mostly of black and Latino men—was at the center of the federal ruling.

“‘Furtive movements’ are an insufficient basis for a stop or frisk if the officer cannot articulate anything more specific about the suspicious nature of the movement,” Judge Shira A. Scheindlin wrote in her opinion. “The same is true of merely being present in a ‘high crime area.'”

On the other hand, if the person incriminates himself, the police don’t need to worry about sticky constitutional issues governing interviews and searches. According to police, this happens in Chicago all the time—accounting for a majority of the 40 marijuana-possession arrests in the city each day, to cite but one example.

That was the case at Pulaski and Iowa on that spring evening in 2011, the officers reported. They said that as they approached, the suspect blurted out: “I only got a few bags of weed in my shorts.” One of the cops then searched the suspect and found ten small plastic bags of suspected cannabis in his left-front pants pocket. Altogether the baggies weighed less than half an ounce and were worth an estimated $66.

Two other officers arrived at the scene and they placed the suspect under arrest. It took more than two hours to book him at the station. He was released early the next morning, and several weeks later he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession.

Reports of suspects volunteering that they’re carrying drugs, or throwing them to the ground as cops approach, are so common that some defense attorneys and civil libertarians assume it’s a standard way of getting around questions about the legality of stops, frisks, and searches.

“The allegations are, ‘I was minding my business but because I’m of a certain race and I’m male and I’m in a certain neighborhood with lots of crime, they stopped me’—they’re a lot of my cases,” says Chelsey Robinson, a defense attorney who works with low-income defendants for the Chicago Bar Association.

In court it’s the officer’s word against the defendant’s. Robinson says that’s why most of her clients just want to plead guilty and be done with it—they assume there’s no way they can win. She urges them to demand a trial and fight the credibility of the evidence. “Sometimes the officer’s story just doesn’t add up,” she says, or the prosecutors decide it’s not worth pursuing. In fact, about 90 percent of all misdemeanor marijuana cases end up getting thrown out.

But Robinson says she’s not convinced there’s an unwritten policy encouraging officers to evade the law. “I think it’s just police officers zealously trying to do their job by whatever means necessary,” she says.

Police say officers here are trained to know they can only stop someone if they can explain their reasonable suspicion. Still, they’re also under tremendous pressure to fill out contact cards and make arrests, especially in high-crime areas. Some civil liberties advocates believe that, as in New York, many stops are made without a clear or credible reason.

“If you keep pushing the police to do something about crime, you get stop and frisk,” says Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, a watchdog organization. “Stopping and frisking everyone is going to reduce violence in the short term. But is that the solution we’re going for as a society? It doesn’t get at any of the underlying issues about education, poverty, and jobs.”