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San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit speaks at a press conference announcing the release of a study analyzing SDPD data. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A long-awaited analysis of San Diego Police Department data, conducted by an outside think tank, was released Thursday and offers a familiar picture of the disparities that people of color face when encountering law enforcement. But the police chief and the report’s authors have said they don’t believe it’s appropriate to attribute such disparities to officer bias.

SDPD has pushed back against previous studies of this nature, contending that the researchers were either politically motivated or didn’t consider the full picture. The new report doesn’t just compare police stops, searches and use of force against local population demographics, it took internal and external factors into consideration, including crime rates, poverty rates, the behavior of community members and individual officers.

While the report leaves open the possibility that racial bias exists within the ranks, its authors have made clear that they do not believe it’s possible to use data to get inside the minds of officers and understand their intentions. Although SDPD has criticized other analyses by outside groups, the latest one mirrors the findings of those efforts.

After accounting for external factors, the new report found that Black people experience non-traffic stops 4.2 times more often as White people and were subjected to force 4.8 times as often as White people. During non-traffic stops, Asian and Latino people were searched 1.4 times as often as White people. Black and Latino people were also more likely to be searched during traffic stops, and Latino people were subjected to force 1.2 times as often as White people.

At a press conference Thursday, Police Chief David Nisleit reiterated his position that disparities are not evidence of discrimination. Instead, he described the new report as “a great roadmap to look at where we can make improvements with the community’s assistance, with the community’s involvement. It has to be a complete conversation,” he said.

In recent years, SDPD has argued that it’s irresponsible to compare, for instance, arrest rates for certain offenses against the city’s demographic breakdown. Yet the city has also implemented a series of reforms in response to Black Lives Matter protests — banning the carotid restraint, refocusing its special operations unit, updating its use of force policy, writing a standalone one for de-escalation and more.

When asked, Gloria was less clear on his view of the reasons for the disparities. He said the new report is an invitation for “the public to come tell us how we can do better and being persistent in actually doing that work, not just issuing a report and saying, ‘Mission accomplished.’”

A link to the new report was provided to reporters at the press conference, but not before — meaning no one could ask about the study’s specific findings. For months, the city has been in possession of the Center for Policing Equity’s analysis but has refused to release it to Voice of San Diego, arguing that those materials are drafts until they’ve undergone a thorough review by SDPD leaders and are ready to be delivered to the City Council.

Ashley Bailey, a city strategic communications officer, said the report was finished in April but the city needed time to plan community meetings, post the information to the website and find a date for a City Council hearing once the budget discussions had passed. It includes lengthy explanations of the department’s community outreach efforts and other equity initiatives.

The Center for Policing Equity is a nonprofit originally founded at UCLA that partners with local law enforcement agencies to measure racial disparities. The group has worked with police departments across the country — from Baltimore to Minneapolis to Las Vegas to Berkeley — and offers analyses of data, including traffic stops and foot pursuits, to pinpoint where racial disparities appear in police departments.

In press releases, the city noted that the Center for Policing Equity was tasked with identifying “any racial disparities in police interactions with members of the public and determine the extent to which disparities were caused by inequitable practices or other factors outside of SDPD’s direct control.” The organization also provided SDPD with “next steps” so that “the department can take to improve existing data collection protocols, investigate disparities in more depth, identify risk factors that may contribute to the disparity, and develop targeted interventions to address those risk factors.”

Meanwhile, SDPD said it will, among other things, revise its consent search policy, create a new procedure for interactions with transgender and gender non-binary individuals, and begin collecting data on when officers brandish “less-lethal” forms of force, such as unholstering a Taser, but don’t use it.

Michael Burbank from the Center for Policing Equity speaks at a press conference announcing the release of a study analyzing SDPD data. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

At the press conference, Michael Burbank, the Center for Policing Equity director of law enforcement initiatives, said his organization’s analysis looked at a range of things, including neighborhood demographics.

“Obviously if there’s a racist officer, we would want the department to identify that and get rid of those people,” he said. “But the idea with this is that what social science has shown, the situational risk factors are what drive those disparities, and so if we can address those things, then we can kinda remove some of that bias or reduce those disparities.”

The Center for Policing Equity is headed by Phillip Goff, a social science researcher, Yale University professor and racial justice activist. In a 2019 Ted Talk, Goff laid out the driving ideology of the group — that biased policing can be confronted by addressing the behaviors of officers instead of their attitudes.

“It’s not that prejudice doesn’t matter. It’s not that discrimination doesn’t. I’ve done a lot of research in dehumanization, in particular. It’s just that it matters a lot less than we think,” Goff said in an interview with CBS last year.

The idea, Goff said, is to “turn down that temperature in that room so that people are less defensive” and so the problem with police departments goes from their attitudes to their behaviors, which Goff said are easier to fix.

And apparently easier to identify.

“Given how long racism has been part of our social fabric, it would be shocking to think that there remained uncertainty about how to tell whether or not racial bias troubled one of our most important social institutions,” Goff and co-author Kimberley Barsamian Kahn wrote in a 2012 paper. “Yet, that is precisely the position we find ourselves in with regard to racial bias in policing.”

This means that even if a department’s data showed that Black and Hispanic residents were more likely to be stopped by cops than their White counterparts, those findings alone would not be enough to determine that racial bias is present, they contend.

That’s what happened in another report that the Center for Policing Equity released for the Berkeley Police Department in 2017, as part of the center’s National Justice Database, an initiative to measure and collect disparities in policing across the country. A police department can opt to participate in the database, hand over whatever data the department collects and receive a cost-free report from the center. The center does not charge police departments for their services as a signal of impartiality.

In the Berkeley report, the center found “wide and unexplained racial disparities in search rates.” Specifically, the report found that “Black and Hispanic people are much more likely to be stopped and searched by BPD officers without being charged with any criminal offenses.”

But the report also fell short of connecting these disparities to racial bias in the department. Instead, it recommended further research into the issue.

Last year, the Center for Policing Equity came to a similar conclusion in a U.S. Department of Justice-funded guidebook produced alongside the Policing Project at New York University School of Law for local governments. Goff and the other researchers argued that the most stop data can do is identify disparities — inferring anything beyond that is difficult.

“Disparity does not necessarily mean there has been discrimination, which generally requires showing discriminatory intent,” they wrote.

Police leaders in San Diego have been making similar arguments for years. To accommodate the city, researchers at San Diego State University toned down their own report in 2016, replacing more than two-dozen uses of the word “bias” with “disparities.” Officials fought to withhold an earlier draft of the report by contending that its release “would likely increase community tension and discontent.”

Then in 2019, a report commissioned by the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties found evidence of discriminatory policing as well as racial, disability and LGBTQ bias in the San Diego Police Department and San Diego Sheriff’s Department. Both departments rejected the report’s findings. Jeffrey Jordon, an SDPD captain, told the Union-Tribune at the time that the report was an unfair analysis of the department’s practices.

“This document is completely designed to push a political agenda,” Jordon said. “There’s no context. There was no conversation with us about it. This isn’t about problem solving, and it’s not about enhancing public safety. It’s about pushing these agenda points.”

Separate analyses conducted by Voice of San Diego and the UC San Diego Extension Center for Research that same month came to a similar conclusion: Black people were more likely to be stopped and LGBT people were more likely to be handcuffed.

A few months before the ACLU released its report, SDPD tapped the Center for Policing Equity to do its own analysis using the same data, the Union-Tribune reported.

The city announced Thursday that it will be holding a virtual community forum next Tuesday followed by a youth town hall on June 30. The new report is expected to come up for discussion at the June 29 City Council meeting.

The Center for Policing Equity is also in the process of producing a report for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

Lisa Halverstadt and Adriana Heldiz contributed to this report.

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