The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Administration Center / Photo by Megan Wood
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Administration Center / Photo by Megan Wood

Complaints against officers at California’s major police agencies have fluctuated since data collection began in 2016, but in many cases the numbers are on the rise. At first glance, one of the largest single-year spikes appears to have come out of the San Diego region.

A draft report released by the state’s Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board shows that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department experienced a 2,278 percent increase in complaints between 2018 and 2019, which can be attributed, at least in part, to a change in the county’s reporting practices.

When asked about the spike, the Sheriff’s Department provided Voice of San Diego with amended figures, showing a considerably smaller increase of 19 percent.

The discrepancy points to a wider problem across the state: a lack of agreement over what constitutes a “complaint” in the first place, and how it should be collected and logged, because local agencies have the discretion to define the term and establish their own systems for handling complaints.

The California Department of Justice, which oversees the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board, compiles and releases the numbers every year — and makes recommendations to local agencies — but doesn’t audit them.

State law requires that police agencies turn over the total number of complaints against officers, including but not limited to allegations of racial or identity profiling. In past reports, the Sheriff’s Department said it had 13 in 2016, six in 2017 and nine in 2018 — fewer than the other major departments required to report their data.

The Sheriff’s Department, which employs approximately 2,600 deputies, was one of only eight police agencies required to report data to the state under the Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015, because of its size. The initial group also included the San Diego Police Department, which employs approximately 1,700 officers.

Previously, the Sheriff’s Department was only reporting complaints that developed into formal investigations handled specifically by internal affairs. Now, it reports all complaints, including those determined to be unfounded as well as those stemming from investigations conducted by individual commands, “regardless of the investigating unit within our department,” Lt. Ricardo Lopez, a spokesman for Sheriff Bill Gore, wrote in an email.

Between 2018 and 2019, according to the latest figures, the Sheriff’s Department received 119 complaints alleging racial or identity profiling and concluded that all but one was unfounded. The remaining complaint was listed as “pending.”

Before deciding whether a complaint has merit, the department will conduct a preliminary investigation by reviewing body-worn camera footage and witness statements. If “there is belief that misconduct occurred,” Lopez said, “we would open a formal administrative investigation.”

In its new report, the state advisory board left open the possibility that the increases from one year to the next “may partially be the result of the learning curve of agencies having to collect the data in a different manner they had historically.” Last year, the board recommended that police agencies provide clear policies and direction as to what constitutes a complaint so that they can all strive toward a more uniform standard.

The board has asked police agencies to take a broader approach by including, for instance, complaints brought by third parties who witnessed but weren’t necessarily at the receiving end of any misconduct. The board also raised the question of whether officers should have a duty to self-report when someone verbally accuses them of bias, or when a video turns up on social media.

In 2019, the board recommended police agencies drop a requirement that people identify themselves and sign their complaints under penalty of perjury, which has a chilling effect.

Some of the relatively low numbers of complaints filed by police agencies may also be the result of misclassification — allegations are labeled as “adverse comment” or “external communication of dissatisfaction” — which creates a distorted picture and limits the ability to correct for any bias.

The board’s 2020 report warned that a disproportionately high number of complaints at one agency may be the result of a widely publicized system for filing complaints. At the same time, another agency may have low numbers “not because they provide exceptional service, but because individuals cannot readily access a complaint form, or are required to mail or bring in complaints in person.”

Meanwhile, the number of total complaints against SDPD officers increased by 38 percent between 2018 and 2019.

Not all the agencies in the larger group reported an increase in citizen complaints. The San Francisco Police Department and Riverside County Sheriff’s Department claimed to have zero complaints involving racial or identity profiling in 2019.

The biggest spike among the second tier of police agencies — which employ between 667 and 999 officers — belonged to the Sacramento Police Department, which saw a 3,550 percent increase. But again, that increase appears to be the result, at least in part, of internal changes. Until August 2019, Sacramento had been categorizing certain complaints as mere “inquiries” to be resolved informally at the precinct or watch level.

The finalized version of the advisory board’s annual report is due Jan. 1, 2021. It will also include figures related to police stops.

New Stop Data Figures Are Rolling Out

In total, California’s 15 largest police agencies reported nearly 4 million stops in 2019. Because officers are not supposed to ask individuals how they identify, the demographics underlying the data reflect the perceptions of the officers involved, which can then be used to considered whether a department is engaging in implicit or explicit bias.

More than 70 percent of the people stopped last year were men. Nearly 39 percent were Hispanic, a third were White, nearly 16 percent were Black, nearly 6 percent were Asian and nearly 5 percent were Middle Eastern or South Asian.

Black Californians were stopped 141 percent more frequently than their share of the population, the draft report noted.

A traffic violation was the overwhelming justification for a stop, followed by an officer’s reasonable suspicion that someone was engaged in criminal activity. People of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent had the highest proportion of their stops reported as traffic violations. Blacks had the highest proportion of their stops reported as reasonable suspicion, and experienced a higher rate of searches and detentions.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people had a higher proportion of their stops reported as reasonable suspicion than people perceived to be straight. They also experienced a higher rate of searches and detentions. The same was true of people perceived as having a disability, although the report notes that many of the contacts initiated by officers were for “community caretaking purposes.”

The state’s advisory board also compared daytime to nighttime data and found that in 2019, darkness decreased the rates at which Blacks and Hispanics were stopped compared to Whites.

“These results suggest that individuals of certain racial/ethnic groups of color may be more likely to be stopped when it is easier to perceive their race/ethnicity,” the draft report states. “These disparities could reflect biased police behavior or the effect of some factor that is not yet being considered by the statistical model.”

Both the Sheriff’s Department and SDPD have made changes over the last year to their non-bias policing policies that could affect the overall stop data.

The Sheriff’s Department, for example, began providing officers with implicit bias and cultural sensitivity training. The stop data is reviewed at the station and executive level, but the report notes that “the revised policy does not include a component on accountability or supervisory review.”

SDPD officers, meanwhile, are required to include information on every stop in their daily journals and all stop data must be verified by a supervisor. In January 2020, the department released a training bulletin informing officers that sergeants would be auditing their stop entries on a monthly, rotating basis. Any reporting discrepancies are supposed to be shared with the officer and the next-level supervisor, and documented through quarterly management reports.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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