The San Diego Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee reviews an annual report on police practices. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Black people stopped by San Diego police and San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies are searched more often than any other race, even though officers find contraband on them less often, an analysis of police stop data by Voice of San Diego and the UC San Diego Extension Center for Research found.

Black people also have the greatest imbalance between stop rates and local population levels across both agencies, the data shows, though some law enforcement officials and union representatives disputed the value of such a comparison.

A spokesman with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department said more time is needed to review and evaluate the data.

The passage of California Assembly Bill 953 in 2015 – known as RIPA – mandated the collection of race, gender and other demographic data during law enforcement stops with the aim of identifying possible bias and profiling. The San Diego Police Department and San Diego County Sheriff’s Department were among the first agencies to gather and submit data to the state Department of Justice, which will conduct its own review of the stops.

SDPD also recently contracted with the Center for Policing Equity to analyze its stop data, but the results are still forthcoming. A report commissioned by the local ACLU chapter released this week also found disparities in stops involving black people, Latinos, LGBTQ people and the disabled, saying the results are evidence of discrimination. Some local law enforcement officials rejected that notion and questioned some of the numbers presented.

Here’s some of what our analysis found in the numbers so far.

In the 13-month period from July 2018 through July 2019, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department deputies reported 41,036 stops.

About 8 percent of the people stopped were perceived to be black, though black people make up just 4 percent of the population patrolled by county Sheriff’s deputies, according to 2018 population estimates published by county regional planning officials.

People perceived to be Hispanic were stopped by Sheriff’s deputies slightly less than their share of the patrolled population, according to the data, accounting for 29 percent of the Sheriff’s stops versus 31 percent of the population.

Meanwhile, 54 percent of the stops were people perceived to be white. The same proportion of the Sheriff’s patrol areas are white.

The San Diego Police Department reported 181,678 stops in the 12 months spanning from July 2018 to July 2019.

Of those, 43 percent were stops of people perceived to be white – just under the city’s 44 percent white population, according to regional population estimates for the city from 2018. People perceived to be Hispanic were also stopped by San Diego police a little less than their share of the city’s population, at 29 percent of stops versus 31 percent population.

Yet black people accounted for 19 percent of the police stops recorded, and make up just 5 percent of the city’s population, the county’s 2018 population estimates show.

Once stopped, the disparity between searches and property seizures emerges.

Black people stopped by law enforcement were searched at higher rates than any other race: 22 percent by Sheriff’s deputies and 24 percent by San Diego police. But at the same time, searches of black people resulted in lower or roughly the same rate of property seizures compared with other races, at 14 percent and 10 percent of the time, respectively.

In contrast, white people stopped were searched 17 percent of the time by Sheriff’s deputies and 19 percent of the time by San Diego police, with 18 percent and 11 percent of those searches resulting in property seizures, the data shows.

The Los Angeles Times recently found the same search and seizure phenomenon for black people when it analyzed similar Los Angeles police stop data.

The most common contraband seized by both San Diego agencies across all races was drugs, followed by drug paraphernalia and vehicles, according to the data. Fewer seizures were reported for things like firearms, ammunition or other weapons.

For some, higher search rates for black people yielding fewer or the same property seizure rates as other races points to racial profiling.

“Racial bias in policing is alive and well in San Diego’s police agencies,” Clovis Honore, president of the local NAACP branch, said in an email about the results. “It is a sad and discriminatory carry over from lies and stereotypes told about Black people since the days of slavery and Jim Crow/Apartheid, and believed by many in the general population, from whom police officers are recruited.”

Honore said if the cause is individual officer perceptions, “these agencies must act immediately and aggressively to root out these racial prejudices, before more San Diego citizens have their lives and that of their families ruin(ed) by racism.” If the cause is “endemic” to the agencies, Honore said, “the entire community of San Diego must take action to hold these agencies and their officers accountable by any means necessary, for the good of the county and all of its citizens. Police and sheriffs spending their time harassing Black citizens when they could be tracking down criminals and fighting crime, is a waste of their time and taxpayer dollars and an insult to Black citizens.”

San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who chairs the city’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee, also expressed alarm at the results.

“These initial findings are extremely concerning. All San Diegans deserve to be afforded the same dignity and respect from those who serve and protect,” Montgomery said in a statement. She noted that the latest stop data echoed the stop data findings of San Diego State University researchers in 2017.

As VOSD reported at the time, those findings were watered down.

“I ran for political office with a police reform platform because I felt a responsibility to do something about this. Now, here we are with 2018 and 2019 and these initial findings indicate that SDPD has this ongoing racial profiling issue,” Montgomery wrote. “We must ask ourselves as a community if this is the type of policing that we will accept. … We have to come to terms with this data and come up with policy solutions that will result in what we all want – more trust between police officers and the communities they serve.”

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery listens to public comments during a Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee meeting. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For Barry Pollard, chair of San Diego’s citizens advisory board on police/community relations,  tasked with reviewing and recommending police policies and programs, the findings were not surprising. (The so-called CAB board is different than another city board tasked with reviewing police complaints and investigations)

“People in my community know this is what is going on. It is not new information. It is a validation of what we have been experiencing for decades,” said Pollard, who also runs the nonprofit Urban Collaborative Project. “I don’t know if it’s intentional. I don’t know if it’s training. I don’t know if it’s based on the life history of the officers.”

Pollard said with multiple studies of local racial stop data now finding similar trends, “It’s becoming a little overwhelmingly obvious that there is something going on with racial profiling.”

The citizens advisory board Pollard chairs earlier this year asked SDPD for a six-month pilot moratorium of pretext stops, where officers may detain citizens for minor infractions and use the violation to investigate a more serious crime, saying it could bolster trust. The recommendation was rejected by SDPD.

“There is something going on that makes officers pull over young black and brown drivers … Especially when they are pulled over and they aren’t finding anything. It’s not even reaping any benefits, so that’s what drove us to that (request),” Pollard said.

In speaking to the city’s public safety committee Dec. 2, San Diego police Capt. Jeffrey Jordon called the pretext stop moratorium request, “one of the more controversial” recommendations made by the citizen’s group. “There’s implications in regards to constitutional rights, the Fourth Amendment on reasonable search and seizure issues,” Jordon said.

Jordon defended the legality and usefulness of pretext stops, while indicating officers are trained in constitutional law.

“What nobody wants, and I would argue what every single member of the community here does not want, is a stop that is based on a small traffic violation or a small criminal violation that turns into a large fishing expedition,” Jordon told the committee. Officers, he said, are trained to “Be specific. Have reasons for what you are doing. When you are done with an investigation, be prompt and move on quickly, so you don’t go into those areas where you begin to violate constitutional rights and you extend the stop for longer than it has to be. I think that’s what generates a lot of frustration within the community.”

“Racial profiling is essentially policing through stereotypes,” Jordon said in an email to VOSD.

He said the stop data analyzed does not indicate discrimination or racial bias in the city’s policing.

Jordon said some of the race data is skewed due to the demographics of the city’s homeless population, which show “black community members make up 28 percent of the homeless population and Asians are 2 percent. So when you look at the beats where blacks are being contacted/stopped, they all have huge homeless populations and are East Village, Logan Heights, and Midway District I believe. Just those three beats account for 20 percent of all stops of black community members. Officers are making contacts there as a result of being responsive to citizen and business complaints, not racial profiling.”

As for the search and seizure figures, Jordon said the SDPD data suggests about 75 percent of all searches were performed in cases driven by arrests or involving someone on parole or probation who “has waived their [Fourth Amendment] rights following a criminal conviction. Thus, searches are not being primarily driven by officers looking for contraband, but rather the circumstances of the stop,” he wrote.

“I wish people knew that disparate findings are not indicative of racism or discrimination of officers, but they will be pushed to think otherwise to drive support to legislative agendas,” he said.

Jack Schaeffer, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, also said the public should be wary of drawing racial bias conclusions from the data.

“I don’t think it proves or disproves anything,” said Schaeffer, who has worked for SDPD for nearly 31 years, including time as a street gang detective. He now does police trainings. “Depending on the different parts of the city, there are different issues. … Some parts of city, the biggest issue is barking dogs. Other areas, it’s drugs.”

Schaeffer opposes efforts to halt pretext stops, even on a small scale.

“It’s criminally driven, not racially driven,” he said. “That’s the way major crimes get solved a lot of the time.”

That said, “if someone is making stops because of someone’s race, then they shouldn’t be police officers. If that’s what’s going on, and I don’t think that it is, they shouldn’t be doing police work,” said Schaeffer.

Schaeffer said the city’s relatively low violent crime rate should speak volumes about the quality of police work performed regularly.

David Leonhardi, president of the 2,500-member Deputy Sheriff’s Association of San Diego County, said in an email, “This data clearly is not the smoking gun the legislators who passed RIPA expected it to be.”

He said the data findings actually offer evidence “there is not widespread racial profiling amongst our deputies,” since on the whole, minorities were stopped a combined 46 percent of the time, “consistent with the population data for Sheriff’s jurisdiction areas,” though he said there are problems with such population comparisons, because sheriff stops involve more than local residents.

Stops include tourists and others passing through, and “large amounts of people at special events such as the Dal Mar Racetrack and San Diego County Fair,” Leonhardi wrote. He also claimed about 15 percent of all the stops “reported did not occur in sheriff’s jurisdiction areas at all.”

“I would ask the public to put themselves in the figurative boots of their local law enforcement folks and ask themselves what is a realistic expectation for these stops? And, how can law enforcement personnel stop individuals of different races in exact proportion to the areas where they live? Especially, when they’re supposed to ignore race as a factor while conducting business?”

Justin White, spokesman for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, said the agency will evaluate the stop data and racial disparities highlighted, indicating the department “is committed to providing the highest level of public safety in all the neighborhoods we serve. We expect all of our stops, detentions, arrests, and searches to be constitutional and within Sheriff’s policy. We regularly meet with community groups which allow us to address concerns and continue to build trust with the citizens of San Diego County.”

Questions sent to the offices of San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who wrote RIPA, were not answered this week.

Pollard, the chair of the city’s citizens advisory board on police/community relations, said there’s room for improvement, and cities that have begun racially blind prosecutions in response to racial profiling concerns demonstrate a “closer relationship with the community. Maybe my expectations are too high, but I think San Diego is capable of that.”

Going forward, Pollard said he looks forward to further dialogue with SDPD about the stop data.

Jordon told the city’s public safety committee a working group was recently formed to consider a more robust standalone anti-bias policy in line with recommendations made by the Department of Justice RIPA board in its 2019 annual report.

Jordon told VOSD the group – of which he is a part – should conclude with the creation of a new procedure in about a month.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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