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Evergreen top cop dismisses Fox News reports of gun deals, racial profiling

Says story is sensationalism, 'figment of the imagination'

By Laura Bollin

The police chief of Evergreen Park on Monday night responded to a news report that police officers from his department have been making deals for guns with would-be arrestees.

Chief Michael Saunders spoke at the Village Board's meeting about a Fox News Chicago story that alleged Evergreen Park police officers have been letting motorists out of traffic tickets in return for firearms. Saunders said the allegations are false.

"The officers were allegedly telling people to put their guns in a garbage can, and then the police would give the person a throwaway cell phone, and they could call and the officers would go get the gun, and then they would get out of the traffic stop," Saunders said. "What I explained [to Fox] was, first of all, nobody has come into the department and filed a complaint."

Saunders also responded to allegations by Fox News and the Better Government Association that the police department is guilty of racial profiling. The accusation arose after someone reportedly submitted an allegation to a Fox News reporter, Saunders said. He dismissed the allegations as "figments of the imagination."

The stories about the department aired on television last week, and Saunders declined to be interviewed by Fox because the allegations were false, he said.

"I'm not racist," Saunders said. "I don't care what color people are, or what color my officers are, I just want the best ones. [The allegations are] sensationalism. That's all this is."

The department reportedly received several calls from the press concerning the number of traffic stops and arrests relative to "benchmark analyses," which are reported to the Illinois Department of Transportation on an annual basis, the department stated in a press release. The current benchmark, based on a police review from 2004, estimated the minority driving population through the village at 62.57 percent. Saunders believes the current percentage should be closer to 90 percent.

A team of professors at Northwestern University in 2004 designated the benchmark at 12.3 percent - a figure Saunders called "impossible." That percentage was based on the demographics in Evergreen Park, and 12.3 percent is the minority population in Evergreen Park, not the driving population in the town, he said. He believed the 2004 figure to be impossible because of the village's close proximity to Chicago, and the number of Chicagoans that come into Evergreen Park to work and shop.

Saunders is currently putting together his own study on the minority driving population in Evergreen Park to submit to Northwestern University in March, and the university will then evaluate it, he said.

"A lot of these people come out this way to shop because of the lack of businesses on the South Side, which is one of the reasons we have such a high volume of traffic in town," Saunders said.

"We have two hospitals, Little Company of Mary and Advocate Christ, nearby; and we have the same traffic as the south side of Chicago," Saunders said.

Evergreen Park police reported 20,353 traffic stops in 2011 - 5,697 of Caucasian drivers and 14,656 of minority drivers. Chicago police during the same year reported seven times as many traffic stops as Evergreen Park with 140,942 - 39,780 of Caucasian drivers and 100,227 of minority drivers. Evergreen Park has a population of 25,044 people, roughly 108 times fewer than Chicago, which has an estimated population of roughly 2.7 million people.

"It is staggering they only made seven times more stops than us," Saunders said. "When we stop people, we stop people are who are driving with suspended licenses, revoked licenses, people with warrants, or people with guns or drugs in their cars."

Based on zip code analysis, 92.7 percent of drivers stopped in Evergreen Park - 15,926 out of 17,175 - live outside the village, according to data provided to the police department by IDOT. Minority drivers - 12,538 drivers out of 17,175 stopped - accounted for 73 percent of stops that year, the data shows.

The percentage of minority stops is reflective of traffic coming from outside Evergreen Park, particularly Chicago, police said. The police department records all of the racial information of arrestees via computer, and submits that data annually to IDOT.

The department states it has procedures in place that give stringent regulation to fair and unbiased enforcement of laws including traffic enforcement. Every traffic stop in the village is recorded on video with audio. Moving radar as well as stationary radar detections determines the speed of a vehicle prior to being able to see any identifying characteristics of a driver or passengers, police said.