Traffic court notices in Chicago have been a mess, the Court Clerk says it's racist to ask why

Cook County, IL includes the city of Chicago and has a population of more than 5 million people. It’s a big job to manage all of the court dates for the county and that’s especially true in the midst of a pandemic. Traffic cases in the county have been moved entirely online in the form of Zoom meetings, but many people aren’t getting the message.

In fact, some people are getting the wrong message in the form of court date notifications telling them to show up at the courthouse. But when they get there they find themselves waiting for hours in a line that stretches for several blocks. When they finally get to the front of the line they are informed that traffic cases are handled online and while they were waiting in the line, they missed their online court dates.

When local news outlet WGN first reported about this two weeks ago, a spokesman for Cook County Court Clerk Dorothy Brown didn’t respond to a request for an explanation. But at a minimum, Brown’s office should have been aware by that point that the notification system wasn’t working well and that the media was taking notice.

Yesterday, roughly two weeks later, WGN came back to the story and found that the situation was still a mess. There is still a line of people showing up at the Daley Center for traffic court only to find out traffic court is online only at the moment. And one of the people they had interviewed for their earlier story finally received a notice about the online court date. The court date was July 7 but on the back of the postcard the date it was mailed was July 16. This particular man had driven three hours each way and waited 3 hours on a line to find out he’d missed his online appearance.

WGN finally got a chance to speak to Court Clerk Dorothy Brown about why all this was happening and her response was, shall we say, very interesting. Brown said the only reason she was being asked was because WGN “felt like this black woman’s office had to have done something wrong.”

Brown continued, “Regardless of what I say today, this story will probably come out very negative for my office as it always has come out over the last 20 years, continuing to perpetuate the internalized, mediated and institutionalized types of racism directly onto me.”

Again, it’s worth noting that WGN’s initial story barely mentioned Dorothy Brown and the people they interviewed on camera, who were irritated at the confusion about how to deal with traffic tickets, were black. But somehow, asking the person responsible why this is happening is institutional racism?

“I’m confused why it’s racist to ask about all the folks who have been confused and drove down to the Daley Center for court appearances that they didn’t have to attend,” the WGN reporter asked.

Brown apologized for the confusion and then the interview took another strange turn. About those postcards that were mailed after the court dates, Brown said “a few” like that went out but claimed it was not “in error.” She claimed her office was “fully aware” some cards were past the court date but had decided it was best for people to get a late notice than no notice.

Asked about the “logic” of sending late notices intentionally, Brown again said that focusing on that was a sign of “unconscious bias.” To me this looks like a pretty lame excuse from someone whose office isn’t doing a great job, but I find myself wondering what Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, would make of this situation. Maybe it’s better not to know.

Here’s the WGN clip.