When Assemblywoman Shirley Weber began talking to law enforcement officials to discuss the raft of bills she’s writing to address concerns about policing and people of color, she said their reaction was very different than it used to be.
“All of them seem somewhat open and receptive to data collection, body cameras, a little more oversight,” Weber told me. “They might have some things that they higgle, higgle about. But they’re not saying, ‘Oh no, this is too much intervention. We can’t have this.’ It’s a totally different kind of conversation now.”
The relationship between police officers and communities of color has dominated the media spotlight both nationally and locally over the last year or so. In San Diego, racial profiling remains an issue after we revealed last year that SDPD had quietly stopped following a key policy to monitor and safeguard the community from racial bias.
Weber’s bills would require police departments across the state to collect racial data on their traffic stops and use of force and create statewide standards for police body-worn cameras.
Weber’s body camera bill would ensure that cameras are turned on whenever an officer makes an enforcement contact, such as during an arrest or traffic stop, and would prohibit officers from viewing footage until after they’ve made a statement about an incident.
Weber, a San Diego State University professor emeritus who represents southeastern San Diego, Lemon Grove, parts of Chula Vista and other areas, talked with me about the motivations behind her legislation and why she disagreed with District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ unsuccessful prosecution of two alleged gang members on conspiracy charges.
Was there any particular event, either locally or national, that happened in the past couple years that was the impetus for you to propose these bills?
I wouldn’t identify a specific issue where I said, “OK I gotta do this.” I do know that as things escalated and things began to get worse this past fall, you began to see almost every other week something was happening. This is nationally as well as locally things are taking place.
My son, who is an adult, was watching some of the protests in the street and he said, “You know, mom, you and [Assembly Speaker Toni] Atkins have juice. You guys can handle this. We kids are just running around here protesting. But you folks need to respond to this.”
And I actually told [Atkins], my son said you and I have juice. You are the speaker of the Assembly. I’m the chair of the state budget committee. We got juice. How do we use this juice? How do we try to intervene on behalf of our communities to make a difference? That became part of the driving factor. I looked around and I realized that these young people are around here protesting and marching, and they need to have someone say, “We hear you and we’re going to deal with this.”
How would you assess policing and prosecution in San Diego specifically as it relates to people of color?
I don’t think San Diego is any different than any other city. I’ve not seen any great difference, and I don’t think anyone would say there’s a great difference. It’s kinda hard to a certain extent at my level because I know all the police. I know the chief of police, so when you’re at that level you know that people are nice. (Laughs.) So it’s kind of hard to evaluate it.
When I ask young people, whether it’s my students or others, they find the same thing to be true. I taught at the university for 40 years and my students consistently complained about the police department around San Diego State University. That when black students would have a party, they’d be right there no matter what the noise was. They observed that when others were having similar parties that didn’t look like them, they never raised an issue.
What’s your opinion of Bonnie Dumanis?
Once again, I know Bonnie as a person. We sit and we can chat about a number of things. I think she’s wrong in the prosecution that she’s engaging in with [gang conspiracy charges].
Brandon Duncan and Aaron Harvey, right?
Yeah. I met with her about that. There comes a point where you have to acknowledge that people have certain rights in this country. One of the rights is to be innocent until proven guilty. And that guilt by association, you’re not guilty by who you know and associating with individuals if you haven’t committed a crime. I did meet with Dumanis and I expressed that, that I was very disappointed.
As I point out to people, nobody supports gangs. Nobody thinks gangs are a great thing to have in a community. Yes, they do wreak havoc on communities as well as a lot of other things that do. But you can’t become so vigilant about that that you then turn around and violate the civil rights of the people who are there.
We did that years ago when we created greater penalties for crack cocaine than powder cocaine. We did that and the community initially thought it was a good idea because the community was being ravaged by crack cocaine. No one at that time, out of anger and frustration about what crack was doing in our communities, didn’t look at it in terms of the overall impact of putting all these people in jail for longer periods of time, destroying families and so forth. Then when the community looks around and says, “Oh my God.” These same little kids with money who get powder cocaine get rehab and therapy and everything else and they’re walking the streets and have their families. These folks who smoke crack have their kids in foster care, their kids in juvenile hall, families are broken up, all this kind of stuff and we still haven’t solved the problem necessarily. But we have criminalized a group of individuals almost by economics and race.
That’s my concern with this. Yes, gangs are bad but sometimes you can overact and take away the rights of individuals in the process.
Right now, San Diego has been collecting this [racial] data for a year, concluded that there are disparities between the populations of blacks and Latinos and their stop-and-search rates, but also said they couldn’t determine evidence of racial bias and sent it to a San Diego State professor. That study is going on now. Given how difficult it is to go from pure data to conclusions about data, how would collecting the data alone – which is what your bill would do – how would that get at the nut of what the problem or concern is?
To me, if you are disproportionately stopping individuals, you should be able to come to some conclusions of whether the stop is justifiable, of whether you stopped them probably because they’re black. If you look and ask, was there a weapon, was there this, was there that. And you discovered none of those things existed. Then you ask: Did this person violate the law? Were they driving too fast, were they driving too slow, why did you stop them?
You are talking about individual stops. My understanding, and correct me if I’m wrong, is you’re going to be collecting data in the aggregate. So individual stops aren’t going to be identifiable in the data. How are we going to get at the circumstances you’re describing?
In New York City in the stop and frisk case, it was an analysis by a law professor that convinced a judge that the program was racially biased. It took that professor a couple years to analyze that data. There’s a methodology to control for other factors. Again, my question is OK, we’re going to get this data, but without this analysis behind it, what exactly is that going to tell?
You have to do an analysis. The community will probably call for an analysis once you look at the data. If you look at the data, and the attorney general looks at the data, and you see “Oh my God, look at all these people getting stopped.” The community is going to ask, what does this mean? There are people who can analyze it come up with some conclusions. In the absence of data, it’s all anecdotal.
What you’re saying is that you’re confident that there would be some additional analysis done even if the legislation doesn’t mandate it and that it would take time and money to do it?
You’d hope your attorney general would do it. The attorney general is supposed to give an annual report to the Legislature. At that point, I’m sure people would ask questions as to, what does this mean, what’s happening?
What’s the most important aspect of your body camera legislation?
I think they’re all important. Probably the pieces that might be the most controversial is notifying people that you’re taping them. That and not being able to look at the tapes until after you have written the report.
The purpose is to make sure that these body cameras, that we use them really do begin to address some of the issues and don’t begin to become a problem by themselves.
I would hate to have body cameras where police just go in and tape everybody and then they go back and say, oh we can prosecute him for this, we can prosecute her for this because we saw that she didn’t have this or didn’t have that or there was something illegal in the house. That kind of stuff. All of sudden you then start creating crimes for people, and people are more victimized by the cameras than helped. That was really my concern. We didn’t really want the cameras to become the tool that people become victimized by. We wanted it to become the information in times of conflict and to talk about what is correct and what took place.
Anything else you want to mention about these issues that you want to make clear?
I think the more information we have, the more process and procedure we have, it makes people much more conscious of it, in terms of what they’re doing, what they’re engaged in and whether or not those things are appropriate or inappropriate. I think they’ll become good tools for our police department to improve with, as they look at their data, as they see themselves.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.