DECATUR – An analysis of noise ordinance violations by race reveals that the majority of people arrested in recent years are black, but city officials say race is not a factor in enforcement.
The 11-year-old city ordinance prohibits music that can be heard from 75 feet or farther from a vehicle. Violators face fines of $250 each to the car's owner and driver, or $500 if they are the same person, and the vehicle is confiscated until the fine is paid.
Violators also must pay towing fees, which can accumulate for every day they do not pick up their vehicles.
A group of residents appeared at the Decatur City Council meeting Monday to express concerns, not about the ordinance, but about the towing of vehicles, which they said was an unnecessarily harsh punishment.
Decatur Township Supervisor Lisa Stanley also said some residents told her that they felt blacks were treated more severely under the law than whites, and she asked for a breakdown of the violators by race.
The Herald & Review sought the same information, which the Decatur Police Department provided this week.
So far in 2014, 80 people have been cited for having their music too loud. Of those, 55 were African-American, 22 were white, one was Hispanic and two were classified as “other.”
Last year, 120 arrests for the ordinance violation took place. Of those, 85 were black, 33 were white, one was Hispanic and one was considered “other.” In other words, roughly 70 percent of the people arrested for the violation were black in a community where the total population is about 23 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Looking at the numbers, Stanley said she was saddened.
“I would really hate to think that (African-Americans) are targeted, but how do you explain this?” she said.
Stanley reiterated that she believes in the need for a noise ordinance and does not disagree with large fines for the offense, but hopes the council will reconsider the towing portion of the punishment.
Decatur Police Deputy Chief Jim Chervinko said most of the time, officers cannot tell the race of a vehicle's driver from the distance at which they notice the loud music. While the ordinance sets a distance of 75 feet, Chervinko said he has seen reports where the officer heard the music from as far as 270 feet, nearly the length of a football field.
“I truly do not believe that we are singling out people due to their race,” he said. “It's solely based on, the officer hears the loud music, they look and see what car is coming from and from that a traffic stop is made.”
Officers might notice the loud music while sitting at an intersection watching for other violations, such as speeding or running a red light, Chervinko said. At other times, they might respond to complaints from residents who call about the loud music of cars in the neighborhood.
The number of violations appears to have dropped in the years since the ordinance went into effect.
Between May 2004 and May 2005, the first full fiscal year that the ordinance existed, 166 citations were written, according to Herald & Review archives. Chervinko was quoted in a May 2008 story as saying the department issued “well over” 300 tickets in the preceding 11 months.
City Manager Ryan McCrady said it is important to consider the context of the ordinance's establishment in 2003, when residents complained about music so loud it shook houses.
“Without a doubt, the town is quieter. The quality of life and the impact on quality of life from loud music has gone down over the years. I think the ordinance is to be credited for that,” he said. “The question of whether the punishment is too severe or not will have to be sorted out by the city council, and I believe they'll take the time and look into it.”
McCrady said he did not know of a reason why a disproportionate number of African-Americans were cited for loud music, but he stressed that he would never tolerate racial profiling from any city employees in any aspect of their jobs.
“I do not have anything to tell me that race is a factor in the enforcement of this ordinance,” he said. “I understand the data that the citations show. I do understand that, but our police department does not have a history of being involved in racial profiling.”
He said that several council members had indicated an interest in discussing the issue further, and they are waiting to hear from individuals on both sides of the issue before making a decision. Some people already have called his office to express their views, he said, and many are in support of the ordinance remaining the way it is.
McCrady said anyone who wanted to voice their opinion could call his office at (217) 424-2801.
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