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Every year the San Diego Police Department invites the public to experience what police recruits go through in the academy. Video game-like simulators show them what it’s like to weave through traffic with sirens on and talk down a suspect with a knife.
This year the department held one of its open house events in Encanto and for the first time, gave the public a look at how it trains against racial profiling.
The location is significant. It’s one of the city’s most heavily policed neighborhoods and has been at the center of local discussions about race and law enforcement.
Encanto resident Paul Khalid Alexander barely cleared the threshold of the Tubman Chavez Community Center for the event before a uniformed officer greeted him.
Alexander is used to seeing cops, but in a much different context. The City College professor has a storefront on Imperial Avenue, where he works with former inmates and others impacted by the criminal justice system through his nonprofit, Pillars of the Community. A recent spate of shootings has ramped up police presence on the street, and Encanto’s reputation as a gang neighborhood means a lot of red and blue lights to begin with.
The department wanted its officers to get out of their cruisers and have the kind of face-to-face interaction Alexander experienced at the front door. Inside, about a dozen officers buzzed around meeting residents and handing out business cards.
“The key here is creating dialogues, creating conversations, keeping the community concerns at the forefront,” said Sgt. David Bautista at the start of his presentation.
Bautista teaches the non-biased policing class for current officers. The state requires it every five years, but San Diego’s officers get some form of it every two.
The idea is to get officers to recognize that, like many others, they’re predisposed to associate race and criminality. If they can recognize that, they can make better-informed enforcement decisions and even change their perceptions.
Discussions about the civil rights movement, mock scenarios where officers are asked to make quick decisions and explore what informed those decisions and a series of videos are supposed to tease out their biases.
Alexander said Bautista’s demonstration took on a different tone than he expected.
“I was under the impression that we were going to see how they teach their recruits,” Alexander said. “Instead, what I saw was a conversation where they were explaining why they do the things they do and why the community has a misperception of racial profiling.”
Alexander pointed to the section on pretext stops. Those are when police lawfully pull over an individual for a small infraction like rolling through a stop sign, but are really investigating a larger offense.
Bautista used the example of a suspected drug house, where cars are coming in and out all night. He said a common investigation practice is for officers to set up at a nearby intersection and try to catch some of those individuals committing a moving violation. Officers can then pull them over and potentially find evidence that can confirm their drug house theory.
But that can look like racial profiling to onlookers.
“Say you notice this police activity, so you watch for a bit and you notice that most of the drivers appear to be of a particular race,” Bautista said to the crowd. “Do you know anything about the drug house around the corner? Likely not. So does that give clarity to how pretext stops could appear to be racial profiling?”
Alexander said he interpreted this and legal explanations during the sessions as officers saying, “Just trust us.”
He said that message has already turned off many in the community. For the past year, they’ve heard police and city leaders repeatedly say they believe the perception of racial profiling is real in San Diego, but not necessarily the act itself.
“When you have the community that’s saying there’s a problem and before you address the problem or admit there’s a problem you say, ‘Well, actually, you’re just misperceiving what the problem is,’ that starts off on the wrong foot,” Alexander said. “You’re already starting off by denying the validity of what I’m saying, so why should I listen to that?”
But state and federal groups responding to national unrest over racial profiling incidents say Bautista’s instinct to temper the public’s suspicions with an explanation of police procedure is a valid strategy. They call it “procedural justice” and state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris is rolling out police curriculum on it in the fall.
Training Capt. Brian Ahearn said it will become a part of local training after observing the open house in Encanto and another the week before.
“Lets say an officer follows the law and follows department procedure, but there’s still somebody who watched that stop take place who believes that it took place solely based on race. We want our officers to have an appreciation for that perception and not to discount it or minimize it,” Ahearn said. “The more we can bring the community’s perspective into the classroom, the more the officers can factor that in, in terms of explaining to the person stopped the reasons why they were stopped.”
In addition to the move toward procedural justice, criminologist Lorie Fridell, who studies biased policing and has consulted for law enforcement agencies across the country, recommends departments have a firm policy against racial profiling, that they do the kind of scenario-based training the department previewed in Encanto, and that their supervisors take an active role in watching for discriminatory patterns.
San Diego recently enacted a policy requiring officers to report misconduct, including violating policies on biased policing. And the department is training up its ranks of supervising sergeants after a voluntary federal audit found weaknesses in its leadership structure.
Chief Shelley Zimmerman also said the department has a new program for recruits. During their first month on the job, they’ll visit churches and mosques in San Diego’s diverse communities.
But Alexander said until the department gives a little on its stance that racial profiling isn’t happening, its good intentions could be lost on residents.
A rough analysis of the department’s data suggests black and Hispanic residents are subject to more traffic stops and searches than other groups. An academic study on what that means is due out this fall.
The department plans to offer a third open house Saturday at the region’s law enforcement training center at Miramar College. It will give attendees the kinds of hands-on demonstrations offered in past years.