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A few years ago at a community meeting in the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, I watched residents of San Diego’s City Council District 4 neighborhoods – including Encanto, Valencia Park, Skyline and other communities located in southeastern San Diego – debate what to do about a group of homeless people who hung out at the corner of Euclid and Imperial avenues.
The area has long been one that community members have attempted to reclaim and rejuvenate, and the latest problem was the homeless individuals who were disrupting the businesses there.
In other parts of San Diego, police enforcement around homelessness is often driven by resident and business complaints. But here, in one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, residents simply didn’t trust the police to solve their problems. They were concerned that asking the police for help or bringing any additional police presence in the neighborhood could put other residents in danger, like kids walking to and from Lincoln High School. In other words, asking the police to intervene in a neighborhood issue could create problems of its own – perhaps far bigger, more dangerous ones.
“It’s generally felt by a lot of residents that the police are not looking out for the residents here, but they are more into finding things wrong and using a heavy hand,” said Barry Pollard, who runs the Urban Collaborative project and was former chair of San Diego’s citizens advisory board on police/community relations. “There is really a lack of trust that generates all this discomfort. The homeless people were just another catalyst that made it clear that the police shouldn’t be dealing with some things.”
District 4 is 47 percent Latino, 19 percent Asian and 15 percent black – and it has long dealt with a heavy police presence that has particularly impacted the black community.
Black people stopped by San Diego Police and San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies were searched at higher rates than any other race, though they were less likely to actually have contraband on them compared with other races, a VOSD and UC San Diego Extension Center for Research analysis found in 2019. Black people accounted for 19 percent of the San Diego Police Department stops recorded between July 2018 and July 2019 and make up just 5 percent of the city’s population, the county’s 2018 population estimates show.
In 2019, the San Diego district attorney’s office released a report on officer-involved shootings between 1993 and 2017 that showed 17 percent of victims in officer-involved shootings were black, though black residents make up just 4 percent of the county’s total population.
“Parents and grandparents won’t let their kids go out at night because they are afraid they are going to get picked up and stopped by police,” Pollard said. “That’s what I hear from a lot of the town councils that we have in District 4. And it’s not just coming from the activists and the younger population, it’s coming from the parents and grandparents.”
I spoke with several people who either grew up or are currently living in District 4 about their first memories of interacting with the police and how the presence and treatment by police has impacted them on a daily basis. For everyone, the interactions first started when they were minors, sometimes as young as 6 or 10 years old.
“It’s been years and years of distrust,” Pollard said. “It’s been happening for decades, but we have cameras now.”
Tau Baraka was around 15 years old when he was stopped by police near his home in Skyline. He and some of his friends were walking home from playing softball. Another kid had apparently busted a store window nearby, so police stopped Baraka and his friends.
“They surrounded us and did everything they weren’t supposed to do to underaged children because they thought we were the ones,” he said. “They search our pockets, made us sit on the ground.”
The officers didn’t seem to be questioning them with the purpose of getting information to help solve the crime. Rather, Baraka said, they assumed guilt and it felt like they were simply harassing them.
Baraka said that experience made him lose 100 percent of the trust he had in police. And it was just the first of many encounters he’s had to deal with.
“The police here have been more like a military unit per se,” Baraka said. “They act like an occupying force. That’s why we say, whenever you see a police car pull over someone in our community, pull out your phone and film. We’ve had too many instances with innocent people getting caught up in stupid stuff because of how the police approach them.”
Eric Morrison-Smith was 16, driving back to southeastern San Diego from a basketball practice with teammates from Rock Academy when he was first pulled over by a police officer.
The one officer was soon joined by four more.
“They said they stopped us because we matched the suspect of a shooting nearby,” Morrison-Smith said. “Luckily, community members saw what was happening and came out saying, ‘These are kids playing basketball, going to a Christian school, can’t you see the purple uniforms they’re wearing?’”
It took Morrison-Smith a while after that to realize why he was pulled over that day.
“I found myself saying it had to be something other than my black skin,” he said. “Later as I looked into the history of police violence, I just recognized, holy cow, this does have to do with my skin color and just learning that the very area where I was pulled over when I was 16 was also an area that was redlined. It just opened my eyes. People will say the reason those areas are over-policed is because those communities have the most crime, without recognizing that maybe they have higher levels of crime because that they’ve been cut off from opportunities.”
For Morrison-Smith, the answer is bolstering alternative services for homelessness, public health and other issues for which police have become the primary responders. Those duties should go first to community organizations, who can support people better than the police, he said.
Jamie Wilson’s first interaction with the police was when she was 6 years old.
“I was coming out of my house and the police were all outside, guns pointed at our house, looking for my uncle,” she said.
Her children have had similar experiences.
When one of her sons was 7, he was questioned by San Diego Unified police for playing with fake $100 bills in class. The school did not notify her before her son was questioned.
In 2016, police stopped a group of boys in Logan Heights for wearing blue and walking in a public park, including Wilson’s other son, who was 16 at the time. They collected DNA swabs from all of them, despite a state law limiting when police can collect DNA from juveniles.
Wilson’s son’s case was at the center of an ACLU lawsuit and the driving force behind a law closing the loophole that had allowed SDPD to collect the DNA.
Only a month after the lawsuit was filed, Wilson received a letter notifying her that her son was being added to CalGang, the state’s problem-ridden gang database. The letter didn’t cite the reasons why.
Now the same son is serving a prison sentence, Wilson said. He took a plea deal after being arrested over an old cell phone video showing him in a fistfight. He had no criminal record.
“He is in prison right now because I made the decision to go public with what happened in Memorial Park,” Wilson said. “No one else would’ve been charged.”
Wilson said she’s decided to never let her kids walk or take the bus or trolley anywhere.
“That’s not because I’m worried about people in the neighborhood,” Wilson said. “It’s because of the police.”
She also decided that when her son is released, she’ll move out of the neighborhood, so they won’t be constantly living with the threat of a police interaction that could send him back to prison.
“If someone were to come and hit him in the face, and he would hit them back, he would be in prison for life,” she said.
In 1963, when Tony Wiggins was 10 years old, he got a little plastic, half-inch toy knife out of a machine at a Safeway for a nickel.
Before he knew it, another child – who was not black – had told police that Wiggins had pulled the knife on him. He was taken to juvenile hall.
“We would be pulled over on our bikes, skateboards,” Wiggins said. “In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, from 69th and Imperial going towards Lemon Grove, you could not go there. They would turn you back around and tell you that you couldn’t be in Lemon Grove La Mesa, El Cajon, if you were a person of color.”
Wiggins’ most recent run-in with law enforcement happened about 15 years ago, when he was homeless.
“It wasn’t rocket science,” Wiggins said. “Everybody pretty much knew. We were always pulled over by the police. It was apartheid in San Diego. We was always heavily policed in this neighborhood.”
Wiggins said after he graduated and started getting jobs around the city, the first thing he noticed was how few police officers were in other neighborhoods.
“We had to clean up the beach areas, La Jolla, [Pacific Beach],” Wiggins said. “They ain’t never have police.”
When Alonzo Harvey was about 12 or 13 years old, he remembers police approaching him and telling him they needed to take his picture because of the guys he was hanging around, who police said were documented gang members.
Mind you, these were his neighbors.
At the time, a person could be entered into the CALGANG database if he or she met any two criteria from a list that included: admitting to being a gang member; being arrested alongside known gang members; being ID’d as a gang member by a reliable source; being seen affiliating with documented gang members; displaying hand gestures affiliated with a gang; frequenting gang areas; wearing gang dress; or having gang tattoos. (The criteria have since been tightened somewhat.)
That meant if you lived in a “gang area,” and associated with your friends and neighbors, those factors alone could land you on the list.
“At that point it became natural,” Harvey said. “They were always asking me to take pictures. Then it became physical contact, being cuffed and put in the backseat of a police car. And it’s not because you committed any crime, but because of who you’re hanging out with.”
Harvey said at that age, he didn’t know his rights and he was often scared to tell his parents about what happened, because he thought he had done something wrong.
The presence of police made him and his friends worry about things many other kids don’t have to worry about, Harvey said. They would never ride more than two people to a car – or if they did, the third person would have to lie down in the back – to avoid getting stopped by police. You would always take your hat off in the car. You don’t wear certain colors. There was a point where Harvey said he wouldn’t let people in his car if they were wearing red.
“People already knew,” he said. “As soon as you get in the car, you’ll see everybody checking their clothes, taking off their hats, just like natural. This is what we did to avoid the harassment.”
But he didn’t realize that there was anything off about his interactions with police until he went to prison at 21.
“In our community, those are daily interactions,” Harvey said. “That’s normal, and we thought it was their right. They have a badge.”
Going through the court system and hearing other people’s stories made him realize just how often his rights, and the rights of his friends and neighbors, had been violated over the years.
Now as an adult, watching interactions like what he went through as a teenager shake him. He remembers an instance last year where he saw several cops surrounding a 15-year-old on the sidewalk. They had his backpack and were asking him questions about a murder. He pulled out his phone to record the incident and confronted the cops.
“I intervened, but once I see the boy start shaking, I’m so angry that I had to hold back my tears, because I didn’t want him to see me tear up and then all of a sudden think that the situation is now lost,” Harvey said.
Laila Aziz was leaving a parent-chaperoned party to celebrate her high school graduation at the Radisson in National City the first time police stopped her.
She and a few other young women she had driven were wearing nice dresses, heels and had their hair done. They were walking from the hotel to her car, when police suddenly surrounded them, and even put guns to their heads, she said. They made the girls get on the asphalt and searched the car.
“We were told some young black men were suspects were in the area,” Aziz said. But everyone in her group was a woman.
Aziz went to high school at Serra in Tierrasanta, but would come back home to southeastern San Diego, and it was always notable to her the difference in police presence between the two areas.
“It becomes a hostile kind of feeling,” Aziz said. “The stops for no reason, the illegal searches. We have to reimagine policing, because policing has not assisted our community.”
The case of Sagon Penn, a man acquitted of killing a police officer in 1985, haunts Aziz to this day.
At the time, Penn said he had acted in self-defense in the face of excessive police force. Though Penn was acquitted, he continued to have run-ins with law enforcement for the rest of his life. He eventually took his own life in 2002.
“It was so clear it was self-defense,” Aziz said. “And the police brutality stayed with him for the rest of his life.”
Aziz said she would like to see the district attorney stop prosecuting the pretextual stops without probable cause that happen so frequently in their neighborhood.
She is scared to let her 11-year-old boys take the trolley. They have an auditory disability, so sometimes they don’t understand instructions unless they’ve been repeated several times. She’s scared the police will stop them and think they aren’t cooperating.
“They can’t have a regular life,” Aziz said.
Khalid Alexander recalls visiting a friend in Rancho Penasquitos in the eighth grade, walking around the neighborhood with water balloons and having the police called on them.
“They put us in a system, saying if any crimes were committed nearby, they would find us,” Alexander said. “At the time, I wasn’t conscious of it. I thought it was normal.”
When Alexander first moved to southeastern San Diego 10 years ago, he said he was pulled over by the police three times in a two-week period. It was the first time he remembers being asked three questions he was never asked before:
Are you a Fourth waiver? (This refers to someone who was formerly incarcerated and signed a release waiving their Fourth Amendment privacy rights.)
Are you a gang member?
Do you have any tattoos?
“I had been pulled over in other areas before and never been asked those questions,” Alexander said.
Alexander has since founded Pillars of the Community, an organization that advocates for people who have been negatively targeted by law enforcement. And his work there, he said, has made him realize that those questions are basically ways that law enforcement is gauging how many rights they can violate.
There was one case that made everything clear for Alexander.
Several years ago, former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis charged 33 men in the area – including Harvey’s brother, Aaron Harvey – using an obscure criminal statute, and alleged they were co-conspirators in crimes simply because they belonged to the same gang as the actual perpetrators.
The criteria for inclusion in the state gang database was incredibly broad at the time, and many of the men were listed in the database, but contended they weren’t actually gang members.
“That case made it really clear how devastating this harassment and detention of our youth was,” Alexander said. “The question was never, ‘Did you commit the crime?’”