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Benjamin Kelso thinks parents in minority-dominated areas of San Diego should be aware of the color of clothes their children wear. Their children might draw negative attention from police who think they’re in a gang, he said.
Kelso knows because he’s a police officer. And he knows because in the early 1990s, fellow San Diego police officers pulled him over for wearing blue and driving a blue Cadillac.
Kelso now heads the San Diego Black Police Officers Association and he’s risen to become a detective sergeant in SDPD’s domestic violence unit.
He said police and community race relations have improved since he’s been on the force, but SDPD still has a long way to go. We spoke with Kelso for our investigation into the department’s approach to racial profiling issues.
He talked about how his organization’s appearance at Trayvon Martin marches led some SDPD officers to question his loyalty to the force and how certain police practices have upset minority community members.
Can you talk about how the department has changed since when you were pulled over?
A lot of things have changed, not just department-wide. If we look at our national views on race relations over the past 20 to 30 years, let’s go back further, from the Civil Rights era forward, there’s been significant change, significant progress leading up to now. There’s been significant progress on the San Diego Police Department.
Being openly racist is not condoned. In fact, it’s shunned. In some cases it’s disciplined when it’s brought out, when it’s discovered.
The gray area is those situations that lie in between – that could have racial connotations but they also have justifiable law enforcement applications, so to speak. That’s that crossroad between criminal profiling and racial profiling. Depending on the circumstances and the situation, one could be deemed totally justifiable where another one may not be.
They have certainly not solved any sort of larger context race relations problem. Are there officers in the police department that are racist? Certainly. Of every color. Because racism is still alive and well in the United States. It’s just not open.
Can you give me an example of the blurred line between criminal and racial profiling?
Because people of different races commit crimes race can’t be completely eliminated as a potential factor in a certain crime. If a robbery is committed and the perpetrator happens to be black, that’s probably the No. 1 criteria associated with that. But you can’t use that alone as the basis for a stop. Otherwise we go back to what we had in the pre-Civil Rights era.
All of the experts we’ve spoken with and folks in the community have said the key issue with respect to racial profiling is the issue of trust between the community and law enforcement. When profiling incidents happen here, do they erode trust within the community?
They do erode trust. They create problems. They create political backlash, so to speak. They ultimately wind up being situations that organizations like the Black Police Officers Association or the Latino Police Officers or some of the other minority organizations within law enforcement, we work in those communities to build those bridges again, to repair that damage, to try to keep those lines of communications open for when something goes wrong. It’s not a contest of loyalties because we’re law enforcement officers first and foremost. But even that gets questioned.
The damaging thing, the hurtful thing, is to have individuals that we work with question our loyalty because we are out trying to solve a problem, trying to mend a fence.
Can you give an example?
The Trayvon Martin situation was certainly a nationally volatile situation. It raised a lot of community concerns. There were a lot of protests, marches. Nationwide.
We attend those things. Then we have officers that know who we are, see who we are. We’re identifiable as law enforcement, but we’re in the crowd at those things to help show the community that we support you. We don’t necessarily have to believe what your organization believes or whatever. But we support your right to protest, we support your right to feel pain about something that has happened in law enforcement.
Those things are huge. Those things build huge amounts of trust between us and the community. But it has a backlash. Everything has a cost. We get dirty looks from officers on the periphery that are watching the thing wondering, “What’re they doing there? Are they with them or are they with us? What is going on?”
So that happened? You were at events and you sort of got a side-eye from other folks on the force?
Yeah. It became a big topic of discussion. People actually bring up questions. Officers do. They come out with it: “Well, what would have happened if there would have been a riot? Who would you have sided with?”
That question did come up, yeah. Obviously we keep those things in-house and we talk about those things. I had a very candid conversation with one individual who brought that subject up, as did others. When it ended, the individual walked away with a better understanding of what we’re here for and what we’re about. But what was it that made him question it? Only he can say what that was.
What can police leadership do to address these kinds of issues?
Supporting efforts for training, making mandates that people should be treated fairly. I’m not saying that they don’t, either. I’m saying that if executive leadership supports change, change takes place.
I’ll bring up a prime example: making people sit on the curb. It has a safety concern for officers. In certain situations when an officer is outnumbered, it’s reasonable. But when suddenly those situations become the common practice for everyone, everyone at least in those areas, maybe it’s not so reasonable.
Maybe the commanding officers can get involved in those sorts of things, and say, you know what, if you need to do something like that because it’s a legitimate safety concern, do that. But when help arrives, move the person, have them sit in the back of the police car. Or have them sit in the back of the police car from the beginning if you can.
Because [sitting on the curb] is not the procedure that’s taught in the police academy – that is a cultural thing that’s taught in the field by other officers. It’s demeaning.
When we bring that up to officers, it’s actually met with anger sometimes. Because the cultural belief is that doing so impacts their safety. Now, by asking you to not put a person on the curb, you are now asking me to not be safe. And I want to go home at the end of the night. That’s not what the issue is at all.
City Councilman David Alvarez said at a mayoral debate that it’s come to his attention that cultural competency training within the department might not be as strong as it used to be. Have you seen any changes to it?
Have I seen changes in cultural competency training over the years? Yes. Specific programs? I can’t name specific programs. I can only say that the training of today is not what it was once in the past. I think that those trainings should always be a part of ongoing training to help people deal with recognizing the impact of our actions as law enforcement officers.
We do a lot of things because we can and not necessarily because we have to. I guess we have to know where the intersection is of taking an action. Is this action absolutely necessary, or am I taking this action simply because I can take the action without consequence?
I think nationally we feel like we don’t have race problems anymore. We believe we’re post-racial. San Diego PD, do they feel they’re post-racial? Probably. But we know that we’re not.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.