San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit speaks at a press conference announcing the release of a study analyzing the department’s practices. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit speaks at a press conference announcing the release of a study analyzing the department’s practices. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The San Diego Police Department’s leadership has been ineffective over many years at ensuring equity in police stops. That is the conclusion of various analyses of police stop data, which have shown that members of the San Diego Police Department disproportionately stop members of some racial and ethnic groups.

The studies have also indicated that searches performed during stops disproportionately and inappropriately target those same groups. Ironically, the data indicates that, in many cases, those more likely to be targeted are less likely to have contraband or to have broken laws.

The problems with this disproportionate treatment are not in any way inconsequential. Police stops cause anxiety for many, perhaps most of us. When some of us are targeted for a higher likelihood of such stops, absent objective rationale, a legitimate sense of persecution arises. It may discourage people from summoning police even when they have a great need for police services. It may cause some to fear the police, based on their race or ethnicity.

Most police stops are no doubt handled professionally and without harm to anyone. Moreover, police bias may not even be any more widespread than bias within the population at large; but during each police stop there is the potential for something to go wrong. There is inherent risk. Readers need not be reminded of what can happen in some cases. There are many examples nationwide.

Mayor Todd Gloria was elected with the endorsement of the San Diego Police Officers Association. So it should be no surprise that his response to studies finding inequitable treatment is that SDPD leadership should listen to the community and adapt accordingly. That is meaningless political-speak. As VOSD’s Sara Libby has noted, little of consequence comes from community forums to air grievances about these issues.

If the mayor and City Council are serious about police reform, they should commission an annual study of police stop data and make clear that the expectation is that the police chief must steadily and meaningfully bring police stops into alignment with the racial and ethnic makeup of the city population, or provide meaningful reasons why that is not desirable.

The City Council should hold an annual hearing, with the police chief present, in which trends in the data are presented. The police chief should be provided with an opportunity to respond. If meaningful progress is not made, the police chief should be replaced.

B. Chris Brewster, a San Diego resident, is president of the Americas Region of the International Life Saving Federation.

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