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The San Diego Police Department and its chief, William Lansdowne, used to be national leaders in addressing concerns about racial profiling. Now they’re not.
More than a decade ago, San Diego police were among the first to use data to examine how frequently officers targeted minorities in traffic stops. Today, that policy has become the norm in big urban departments across the country. But in San Diego, the effort has largely fallen by the wayside. Officers here now track race in fewer than one out of every five stops and a sergeant in the department’s research and analysis division wasn’t aware that the requirement to gather the information still existed when we asked about it.
Lansdowne isn’t troubled by the decrease in the department’s data collection efforts. He and his top deputies said residents don’t believe racial profiling is a problem.
“It hasn’t come up in years and years and years in interactions with the community,” said Assistant Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who’s in charge of the department’s neighborhood policing efforts.
But those who monitor San Diego police don’t share that perspective. The head of the local Black Police Officers Association, the president of the local NAACP and a city councilman all said racial profiling happens in San Diego and they hear about it.
“Everyone knows it exists,” said Lei-Chala Wilson, the local NAACP president.
And city taxpayers recently had to foot the bill for an incident where police officers stopped young minorities for no reason.
This spring, a federal judge ruled that two officers violated the Fourth Amendment rights of two black residents, Dante Harrell and Shannon Robinson, during a City Heights traffic stop in 2010. Harrell and Robinson’s lawsuit didn’t specifically allege racial profiling, but Harrell said he believed the stop happened because police look for reasons to pull over minorities in minority neighborhoods. The city agreed to settle the case last month for $450,000.
The lawsuit and renewed national scrutiny over racial profiling got Lansdowne’s attention. He has ordered a new round of data collection on race at traffic stops, saying profiling has again become an issue in San Diego.
Criminal justice experts, however, say racial profiling is always an issue: Incidents can erode trust between police and the communities they serve. For some people of color who believe San Diego police officers have pulled them over for that alone, the traffic stops have taken their toll.
“Nobody that I know or myself do I feel safe around [police],” said Abdihakim Afewerki, a 26-year-old engineering student who is black. Afewerki frequently spends time in Encanto and Lincoln Park. “In my eyes, they’re not there to protect me, they’re there to harass me.”
‘We Can’t Be Afraid to Look at the Statistics’
In the late 1990s, civil rights groups in San Jose demanded action after allegations emerged of racial profiling in traffic stops. Lansdowne, San Jose’s police chief at the time, responded.
His department pledged to gather race and ethnicity information voluntarily on traffic stops to see how frequently officers pulled over people of color. Criminal justice researchers hailed Lansdowne as the “father of data collection” on police racial profiling.
“We can’t be afraid to look at the statistics,” Lansdowne said when San Jose released its initial 1999 report, which showed only small disparities between minorities stopped and the citywide population.
But more than a decade later, Lansdowne, San Diego’s chief for the last 10 years, has few statistics to look at.
The San Diego Police Department has had a policy to collect race and ethnicity data during traffic stops since 2000, making it one of the first big urban departments to do so, along with San Jose. The department has told officers they needed to gather this information multiple times in the years since.
But the message didn’t stick. A sergeant in the department’s research and analysis division wasn’t aware that a data collection policy still existed when we asked in late October.
“We do not keep any demographics on traffic stops,” Sgt. Laura McLean told us in an email.
It turns out officers were keeping demographics on traffic stops – just not very much. In the first 10 months of 2013, officers gathered racial information on roughly 16,000 traffic stops, an amount equivalent to about a fifth of the citations issued over the same time. Officers pulled over an untold number of additional drivers without giving them tickets – or noting their race. Many officers gathered the information diligently, police officials said, but the amount of data the department collected decreased substantially over time.
Lansdowne said the effort slowed because no one demanded the department analyze racial profiling in traffic stops, so he didn’t emphasize the requirement to collect the data. In the meantime, other law enforcement agencies have surpassed the San Diego Police Department when it comes to being proactive on the issue.
Seven of the 10 largest police departments in the country currently have policies requiring them to gather race and ethnicity information on traffic or pedestrian stops even if officers don’t arrest or cite the person stopped. An eighth department, Washington D.C., documents the race of those frisked by police.
These data are the cornerstone of a high-profile legal challenge over the New York City Police Department’s practice of stopping and frisking pedestrians in an effort to fight crime. Researchers found 84 percent of those stopped and frisked by New York police were black or Hispanic. Civil rights groups have argued these numbers show the practice is unconstitutionally biased against minorities.
Researchers who study the issue say data collection is a key part of a larger effort, along with robust diversity training and strict anti-bias policies, to prevent racial profiling.
“If there is a spirit and culture of transparency and accountability in the department, they’ll collect the data,” said Carol Archbold, a criminal justice professor who specializes in racial profiling issues at North Dakota State University.
‘Unless It’s Happened to You, You Don’t Know That It Happens’
When his own colleagues pulled him over for no reason, it confirmed for Benjamin Kelso that racism still existed in law enforcement.
One time, San Diego police officers stopped him and told him he looked like he was on parole, said Kelso, who heads the local Black Police Officers Association. Another time, Kelso said, officers told him his blue track suit and Cadillac made him look like he was in a gang.
These incidents happened 20 years ago, and in the decades since, Kelso has worked to be a buffer between the San Diego Police Department, where he’s now a detective sergeant, and San Diego’s black community, of which he’s a part. He calls it being “black while blue.”
The department has made a lot of progress on racial issues in the almost 25 years he’s been on the force, Kelso said, and he understands gray areas exist between criminal profiling and racial profiling.
Still, he doesn’t know why Lansdowne and other department officials say that racial profiling isn’t a community concern. He hears it all the time in southeastern San Diego. Racial profiling traffic stops, he said, do happen in the city.
“Is it the norm? No,” Kelso said. “But I think we would be remiss to say that they don’t occur at all.”
In the last five years, San Diego police have received on average fewer than a half dozen formal discrimination complaints, a category that includes racial profiling, a year. Internal investigations found none of the discrimination complaints valid. And Lansdowne said racial profiling hasn’t come up in his meetings with community groups and leaders.
“I’m unaware of any organized group in San Diego that has approached me about the issue in the last eight years,” he said.
Wilson, the local NAACP president, disputes that. Her organization has held multiple forums on the relationship between the black community and local police. She recalled Lansdowne speaking to the NAACP at a recent monthly meeting where profiling was a topic. She’s not sure why police officials would say no one has brought racial profiling problems in San Diego to their attention.
“I would say that’s untrue,” Wilson said.
Told Wilson’s comments, Zimmerman, the assistant chief said both she and Lansdowne meant that police officials don’t hear complaints about specific racial profiling incidents from community groups or residents.
Wilson, however, believes San Diego police profiled her nephew, a 22-year-old Southwestern College student, during a traffic stop in summer 2012. Officers pulled over her nephew and his friend, she said, after they left a Padres game, saying their taillight was out. The officers asked if they were on probation or parole, and when they told the police they had been to the game, the officers quizzed them on the score. The officers let them go. When the nephew and his friend checked later, their taillight worked. Wilson said her nephew was too scared to get the officers’ badge numbers, and that she didn’t tell police officials about the incident, either.
City Councilman David Alvarez, a mayoral candidate, said he believes the department has racially profiled recently, too. He cited the lawsuit over the 2010 City Heights traffic stop during a debate in the fall. Alvarez wants to see the department take profiling issues more seriously.
And Alvarez, who is Hispanic, said he too has been stopped unnecessarily because of his race.
“Unless it’s happened to you,” Alvarez said during the debate, “you don’t know that it happens.”
‘It’s An Issue Again’
Afewerki, the black engineering student, expects San Diego police to pull him over every time an officer looks his way.
“It’s sad but it’s a part of life of being a minority in San Diego,” Afewerki said.
Racial profiling matters because it can damage the relationship between police and the communities they serve, said Joshua Chanin, a public affairs professor at San Diego State. Perceived racial double standards can deter crime witnesses from cooperating with police and, at its worst, spark civil unrest, he said.
“It really is about feelings of legitimacy and trust between minority communities and the cops,” Chanin said.
Indeed, a recent incident shows how that sort of breakdown in trust, combined with police errors, can spiral out of control.
In March 2010, San Diego police officers Ariel Savage and Daniel McClain were driving along University Avenue in City Heights when they typed a license plate into their system to check whether the 2005 Pontiac Sunfire they spotted was stolen.
The plate didn’t match the Pontiac, and Savage and McClain flipped on their lights to pull the car over. Inside the car were three young black residents, Dante Harrell, his then-girlfriend Shannon Robinson and their friend.
Before walking over to the Pontiac, the officers rechecked the plate. They found they’d made a mistake when they first typed the plate into their system. Everything matched when they typed in the correct number, meaning officers no longer had a reason to stop the car.
Savage, who also is black, got out of his police cruiser to tell Harrell the cops had screwed up, according to court records. But instead of just letting Harrell and Robinson go, Savage asked for their license, registration and insurance.
At that point, the couple began showing clear signs of mistrust for the police. Harrell picked up his cell phone and hit record to videotape the officers. Robinson grabbed her phone to dial 911. She wanted to speak with a police supervisor; she’d had a bad experience with Savage before.
Ultimately, a struggle began. Officers pepper-sprayed the couple, tasered Harrell repeatedly, dragged Harrell and Robinson to the ground and arrested them. At least 10 police cruisers and a helicopter responded. Prosecutors never filed charges against the couple.
Harrell and Robinson filed a lawsuit, alleging wrongful arrest and excessive force. In May, U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Battaglia ruled the officers didn’t have the right to continue the traffic stop after discovering they had entered the wrong license plate. The city agreed to settle the case last month for $450,000.
Harrell said he believes race may have been a factor in the initial stop.
“It was easier, way easier. A black neighborhood, a car full of black folks,” Harrell said. “If I was somewhere else, that wouldn’t have happened. Not at all.”
Top San Diego Police Department officials agreed the incident could be perceived as racial profiling, though they said their internal investigation did not show race was a factor.
Lansdowne said his officers made a mistake when they asked for Harrell and Robinson’s insurance information, but that it was an isolated incident.
“I do not think it’s indicative of a problem with the entire organization,” he said.
Still, Lansdowne used the lawsuit, along with the New York City stop and frisk controversy, to make changes to the department’s approach to racial bias.
Police supervisors discussed the traffic stop and brought it up during daily lineups with rank-and-file officers. The department also re-enforced training on situations that do not involve arrests or citations.
Lansdowne reviewed the department’s racial profiling complaints and found they often came from people upset with San Diego officers asking if they were on probation or parole. He’s planning a training bulletin that will advise officers to be more sensitive when discussing the issue.
And in late October – six days after a sergeant told us the department didn’t keep the information – the department issued a memo to all officers reiterating the requirement to collect racial data every time they pull someone over.
“It’s an issue again,” Lansdowne said.
Story by Liam Dillon and Megan Burks. Photography by Sam Hodgson.