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A major change in San Diego policing has slipped by virtually unnoticed in the last three years: Cops are stopping people dramatically less than in the years before Covid-19 and George Floyd’s murder.
Stops by San Diego Police Department officers have plummeted by nearly half – down from 187,251 in 2019 to 96,119 in 2022, according to data analyzed by Voice of San Diego.
Nobody has a firm, clear explanation for why the drop has happened, but there are some major theories: an ongoing staffing shortage within the department, the rise of citizens filming police encounters and the possibility that police are actually engaged in something of a soft strike, backing away from some duties to protest public animosity.
The changes are not, for the most part, the result of some new policy by police or city leaders. In the wake of 2020, San Diego’s police chief did commit to the elimination of saturation stops – the practice of stopping many people in neighborhoods where crime is perceived to be the highest. But police leaders acknowledge that is far from the only reason stops have gone down.
Police leaders say there are many reasons for the massive drop. They cited Covid-19, staffing challenges and a decision to pull officers off the city’s trolley system.
Reluctantly, they acknowledged another: the protests of 2020. The protests forced an existential crisis in the relationship between cops and the public. Officers, due to their wariness of being recorded and public resentment, have begun stopping people far less often.
“To say it hasn’t had an impact on some officers potentially leading to them being less proactive – there’s no doubt it plays a role. No one wants to be the next viral video,” said SDPD Captain Jeff Jordon.
It’s reasonable to think the massive reduction in stops is, at least to some extent, part of a “soft strike,” said Robert Weisberg, a professor of law and criminal justice at Stanford University.
“It can be a political [statement], as in, ‘[We’re] going to stop fewer people because the world is against us,'” said Weisberg.
The decisions made by Mari Kong, a former SDPD detective, are an example of just how viscerally cops reacted to the events of 2020. Kong, who now teaches criminal justice at the University of Southern California, spent most of her 19 years on the force as a beat cop. But in 2020, she abruptly decided to retire.
“I left with 19 years on. I didn’t even make my 20. At the time I was 43. I can’t collect my pension until I’m 50. I took a huge gamble,” said Kong. “After the riots, I was like that’s when I have to go. I was like, ‘No, I’m out of here.'”
While some, like Kong, left policing altogether, the events of 2020 seem to have left a lasting mark on the way cops are doing the jobs.
Police reform activists have campaigned for years for cops to reduce the number of stops they make. But one prominent local activist said she didn’t count the massive reduction as a victory.
“Saturation patrolling and stops paralyze neighborhoods. The use of extra cars and police officers for everyday traffic stops was never a good idea to begin with, from a resources standpoint or a community wellness perspective,” wrote Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a Black activist, in an email. “There is still no victory to claim here.”
Jones is one of many local activists who have been campaigning for a new city ordinance, which she believes would fundamentally change the way police make stops for the better. The Protect Act, as it’s known, would end “pretext stops” – stops for minor traffic violations that are used as a pretext for searching a person. It would also force officers to have probable cause, rather than reasonable suspicion in order to search a person, as CBS 8 reported.
Some concrete reasons, beyond the events of 2020, explain why police stops have fallen so drastically.
Police leaders made a decision in 2020 to stop posting officers on trolleys and buses. The number of stops that previously occurred on the Metropolitan Transit System were significant, said Jordon, the police captain. Taking officers away from public transit led to an immediate decrease in stops.
Covid-19 also had an impact. Officers were more wary to make close contact with people because of the virus. And far more officers were out sick, or caring for a family members on any given day, said Jordon.
After the protests of 2020, police department leaders also decided to move away from “saturation stops” – doing a large amount of stops, that is, in areas where crime appears to be higher. They admitted, essentially, that the stops may not have ever been best practice.
They moved instead toward “intelligence-led or precision policing,” said Jordon. In other words, the new policy would be to gather intelligence in high crime areas, rather than saturate the area in stops.
Staffing challenges have also played a role. SDPD has faced staffing challenges for years. Various studies and reports over the past decade have explored different ways the department might find ways to recruit more people than it loses each year.
Then during the last fiscal year, 241 officers left the force. That’s up 51 percent from the roughly 160 that left in the previous year. Most people attribute this to Mayor Todd Gloria’s vaccine mandate, a move that infuriated cops.
Response times have also gone up significantly, as Voice has reported.
Kong, the retired detective, said she believes the department’s culture has been impacted negatively by the many departures from the force in recent years – which may also be affecting stops.
Kong left after what she called “the riots” of 2020. Others, she said, left because of the Covid-19 vaccine mandate; some were simply fed up with SDPD; and others still were over policing generally and the fraught relationship with the community.
All the departures, she said, have created a situation where newer officers have fewer vets to teach them the job.
New officers may not even be confident enough to conduct stops, Kong surmised
Jared Wilson, the president of San Diego’s police union, said that more officers are now being reassigned from jobs where they were expected to do proactive stops to jobs where they are instead responding to calls.
He pointed to the city’s motorcycle unit, which used to focus on traffic enforcement but now focuses on responding to 911 calls, he said.
Wilson also pointed out that he believes the decrease in stops is leading to higher numbers of traffic fatalities. The number of traffic fatalities per year has doubled since 2017, Wilson said. (A recent NPR report suggested stops are down and fatalities are up all across the country.)
Wilson pointed to studies that have found increased traffic enforcement reduces traffic deaths. Other studies, however, have found no conclusive link between traffic deaths and enforcement.
The reduction in stops does not seem to correlate with a reduction or an increase in crime. Many news reports highlighted how crime in San Diego went up in 2021. Police leaders announced on Thursday, however, that crime had gone down in 2022.
It’s all in the wording. Reduction in crime is based on less reporting and the minimizing of what I crime is. Less cops, less people reporting, equals less crime. Don’t let the media mislead you with false statements which are rarely supported by the facts as to “why?”
If you responded to citizen requests and perform an arrest, then a person elected by less than 1 in 5 eligible voters throws your work out, would you do it again when you get the next call tomorrow or would you just move to Carlsbad? We already have the answer, you don’t need to search for obscure causes when the answer is right here in front of us.
You own an $850,000 home which represents the accumulation of your entire life’s sweat and blood. The trap house next door must be burned down 10 times in a year for Mara Elliott to condemn it because drug addicts who have been purged from the Bible Belt have more rights here than your family. Would you call 911 for the 35th time this month or move to Carlsbad? We already know the answer, ain’t nobody need to go searching when the answer is here in front of us.
You and your wife are young professionals with a new family. Your presence and civic engagement over your lifetimes will improve local schools, parks, and quality of life and your family will contribute healthy tax revenues to support all of these basic services you feel your family is entitled to. Each day you have to cross the street on your walk to avoid drug addicts who are collapsed and sprawled out on the sidewalk covered in grime and filth, food containers and garbage strewn about the area. Would you plunk down a $200,000 down payment and commit to a 30 year mortgage in a city where they don’t build libraries and parks but instead give libraries and parks away to become centers for drug addicts? We already know the answer!
the city COULDlook into helping the current homeless to clean up by furnishing a way to do so
A large problem for the homeless is that there are no unlocked dumpsters and people screem if you use the apartment dumpsters because someone else made a mess canning now we all have a bad name. A lot of us would like to clean ourselve and our areas but do not have resources to do so…..
Pulling police from patrolling the Trolley is an inexplicably counterproductive move. The Pronto ticketing system is being blamed for reduced fare collection, while its introduction exactly coincided with this travesty of no police on trains. Street people NEVER have fares, and use the system to shuttle themselves all over downtown, and from the outlying areas to downtown, which is the Home of the Homeless. More police and enforcement is the only logical way to increase PAID ridership, and make locals and tourists feel it is safe to ride. Interesting that during the first two years of the pandemic, the Trolley was thick with cops; along comes Pronto, and they disappear…
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