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The San Diego Police Department has released its first round of racial profiling data since 2001. Its report looks at the race of individuals pulled over during the first quarter of 2014, January through March.
Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, policy director for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she sees “dramatic disparities” in the numbers. But Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman’s report doesn’t fall on one side or the other of racial profiling claims.
Here’s what the data show us — and what it doesn’t.
Black and Hispanic drivers experienced a higher percentage of traffic stops than their share of the driving population.
Black people make up 5.8 percent of San Diegans old enough to drive but they accounted for 12.3 percent of police vehicle stops from January through March. Hispanic people also saw a higher percentage of traffic stops than their share of the driving population: They represented 30.3 percent of the stops but 26.6 percent drivers. Officers were less likely to stop white and Asian residents.
The trends were similar across most police divisions.
That doesn’t necessarily indicate racial profiling.
First, three months of data collection isn’t enough to prove racial profiling. And criminal justice experts have long warned looking at the raw numbers alone is problematic, because they don’t take into account the traditionally higher crime rates and policing levels in low-income, minority communities.
Columbia Law School criminologist Jeffrey Fagan crafted a statistical analysis that accounted for such sticky variables in New York City. But it took two years to complete the analysis, which looked at 10 years of stop and frisk reports.
In San Diego, police officials are citing another set of variables that render the data inconclusive. Echoing independent analyses of San Diego traffic stop data from 2000 and 2001, Zimmerman writes in her report that the department can’t draw conclusions because it doesn’t know exactly who is on the road. It needs a demographic benchmark to spot irregularities.
“Although cities often use population figures as an estimated comparison, this is particularly challenging in San Diego, with its proximity to the border, designation as a world tourist destination, major military presence, and other factors not considered in population data,” the report says.
Basically, tourists and border-crossers could muddy the data.
The department settled on using estimates from the San Diego Association of Governments for individuals old enough to drive as its benchmark, but offered little analysis because of the data’s limitations.
Fagan said the cops are right to advise taking their findings with a grain of salt for this reason.
But disproportionate search rates could tell us something.
The ACLU’s Dooley-Sammuli said we can set another benchmark from which to look at the data. Her analysis sets the yardstick at individuals stopped. From there, it looks at which individuals were searched.
The police data show black drivers were searched three times more than white drivers following traffic stops. Hispanics were searched twice as many times as white drivers. And, particularly troubling to Dooley-Sammuli, the searches were less likely to result in an arrest for black and Hispanic residents, suggesting they were searched even if there was no criminal activity.
“It appears that there are different searching standards for whites than for African-Americans and Latinos,” Dooley-Sammuli said. “That means people who are not breaking the law, who are not being arrested, are being searched.”
The San Diego Police Department did not respond to a request for comment regarding the ACLU’s analysis of the data. But Fagan said the civil liberties group might be on to something. He said he and others have approached the racial profiling question by comparing who actually gets stopped and who gets searched.
But Fagan again cautioned making any definitive racial-profiling claims. He said the analysis must somehow account for the two-stage selection process – why the cops pursued the stop and why they conducted the search. What’s more, the analysis would have to account for variables such as knowledge of one’s rights. It’s possible one group more often consented to searches than others.
There’s more data to collect.
The ACLU is urging the City Council to demand information on pedestrian stops in addition to driver stops. And Cal State San Marcos criminal justice researcher Karen Glover said the department shouldn’t let up on gathering qualitative data at community meetings.
“My strong sense is that there is another ‘data set’ that needs to be recognized as valid information for the police to get a sense of what the community is experiencing — the narratives of the community,” Glover said.
Dozens of residents have shared with Voice of San Diego, their City Council representatives and Zimmerman stories of being stopped and harassed by police because of their race. Glover said people don’t just make up that they are “being oppressed on such a large scale.”
“It just does not happen,” Glover said. “A smart thing for the police to do at this point is to develop a solid multi-tiered response to these racial profiling processes and not merely rely on statistics to understand them.”
Zimmerman said in the report that the inconclusive nature of the data won’t deter the police department from monitoring the problem.
“The San Diego Police Department is absolutely committed to the fair treatment of all members of our community. Building and sustaining trust is essential to furthering our department’s mission and vision,” the report says. “To that end, the department will continue to collect data on vehicle stops.”