CHICAGO — State Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) has sponsored a bill that she said will offer a clearer racial picture of those arrested in Illinois and help determine whether minorities are being treated unfairly.
Hunter said she is not satisfied with how police document race. Before 2010, police usually identified those arrested as either black or white, she said.
“What about Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups?" said Hunter, whose district includes the South Shore community.
Hunter's Senate Bill 1598 would allow anyone arrested to self-identify race on a standardized questionnaire. If the person being taken into custody declined to complete the form, the arresting officer would fill it out. The person completing the form — arrestee or police officer — would also be noted.
The racial data would be reported annually to the state Legislature and governor's office and daily to Illinois State Police. The measure would not apply to motorists issued traffic citations unless they were placed under arrest, said Hunter.
"With this bill, we will [be able to] achieve greater documentation and understanding of individuals being arrested in Illinois for what particular crimes, and be able to identify specific trends in arrests and incarceration,” said Hunter.
Hunter said that there is an "agreed perception" that the Illinois criminal justice system, especially the courts and prisons, is stacked against minorities.
For example, a 2010 study by the Illinois Department of Transportation and the University of Illinois at Chicago found that minority drivers were more likely than white drivers to get traffic tickets when stopped. A state commission in 2011 found that minorities face stiffer punishment than whites for low-level drug offenses.
However, a lack of standardized data prevents a full understanding of the problem and hinders a solution, Hunter said.
Michael Shields, president of the Fraternal Order of Police which represents Chicago police officers, said the union has not decided whether to support the bill.
“Let’s just see what the final product looks like first. Then I would have more to say,” Shields said.
Hunter said she met last month with representatives from the FOP and Illinois State Police, who told her they support the bill but had one concern:
"Law enforcement agencies are concerned that if a person refuses to fill out the [voluntary] form at the time of arrest, it means the officer must determine the person’s race, which is not always easy to identify," said Hunter.
"We are making some modifications to address their concern,” the state senator said.
A spokesman for the Illinois State Police did not return calls seeking comment on the bill, which the state Senate passed unanimously on April 24.
Some Chicagoans expressed concerns about the bill.
"Police do what they want anyway, and this bill sounds like it will give them more room to treat minorities wrong," said Cawanna Brown, 29. "What difference would it make if they accurately characterize us [blacks] anyway? We are still going to be treated the same by them."
Torrence Louis, 53, questioned the need for the bill.
"The Census already collects racial data, so why do we need a bill that duplicates Census numbers?" he said. "Instead of worrying about how people's race is counted, a better bill would have been one that addresses the abuse that goes on when a person is arrested."
Hunter said she is “aware some people think this bill would encourage police officers to racial profile motorists."
"But that’s why the bill stipulates that a person must be in police custody and not simply questioned by the police,” Hunter said.