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The Strong Arm of the Law; San Diego officers, deputies turn to force more often when minorities are involved

San Diego police were about one and a half times more likely to grab, shoot or use other types of force against Black and Latino residents than they were against White people, an analysis of department data by The San Diego Union-Tribune found.

The same review showed that San Diego sheriff’s deputies deployed force against Native Americans and those of two or more races nearly three times as often as they did against Whites, and used force against Black people nearly twice as often as Whites.

The study confirms what community activists and researchers have been saying for years: criminal justice in America is meted out differently depending on the race or ethnicity of people involved.

“The stereotypes about Black people’s bodies suggests that we are more threatening and that we are more likely to be criminals, which leads police officers justifying, in their minds and in their behaviors, the use of force on Black people,” said Rashawn Ray, a policing expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

“When officers interact with White people, they are more likely to give that person the benefit of the doubt because there’s a different level of familiarity — this person could be a sibling, a neighbor or a parent at their kid’s school,” he said. “But with Black people (officers) don’t have the sorts of ‘social scripts’ that would help them see Black people that way.”

The use-of-force data reported by San Diego police and sheriff’s deputies resembles the findings of the Union-Tribune’s analysis of stop and search data recently reported.

In the same way officers and deputies were more likely to stop, cite, search and arrest people of color, they also used various levels of violence during encounters with Black, Latino, Native American and other minorities, the data show.

San Diego police Capt. Jeffrey Jordon said many of the same factors that fuel stop disparities affect force as well. Community conditions like crime or poverty can shape police interactions, as well as internal department practices.

“Relationships between communities and police matter,” he said. “Mistrust may limit cooperation with police and can cause officers to feel unsafe and cautious in encounters with community members.”

Under the Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015 California law enforcement agencies were required to collect detailed information about traffic stops, including the race of people they encounter.

The law has provided a trove of data that previously was not reported.

Researchers, activists and law enforcement officials have been using the data to develop new policies and procedures aimed at reducing the inequity that minorities experience when they encounter police.

The data, which includes nearly 500,000 police and sheriff’s stops, details force as a series of actions that officers and deputies must catalogue, like pointing a gun at someone, deploying pepper spray or a stun gun, using a baton or apprehending someone by force.

More than one police action can be listed for each stop. As a result, the pointing of firearms may occur with other actions, like property being seized, cars being impounded or the use of police dogs to search for evidence or contraband.

Physical force was the most common tactic used across both departments, either in conjunction with other police actions or by itself. Pointing a firearm was the second most common.

From July 2018 through December 2020, data show San Diego officers pointed firearms at about 1,700 individuals. Of that total, about 41 percent were Latino — more than any other racial group.

Latinos represent 30 percent of San Diego’s population and just under one-third of the people stopped by city police.

By comparison, White people account for 43 percent of the city population and 42 percent of police stops, the data show. Less than 30 percent of incidents during which police pointed a gun involved Whites.

The same trend is seen among sheriff’s deputies, who pointed firearms at 500 people from July 2018 through June of last year. About 43 percent of the people on the other end of the weapon were Hispanic, more than any other racial group.

Nearly 35 percent were White and 14 percent were Black, Sheriff’s Department data show.

Force used by San Diego officers and deputies, firearms pointed, person removed from vehicle

Racial disparities in use-of-force practices gained a spotlight March 9, when a San Diego police officer ended up pointing his gun at a 9-year-old boy.

The incident began after a motorcycle officer saw a car traveling as fast as 70 mph on Park Boulevard, where the speed limit is 40 mph, police said. Thinking the driver was trying to flee, the officer called for backup.

When the car pulled over, officers initiated what’s known as a “high-risk” traffic stop. They drew their guns and ordered the driver out of the car.

According to body-worn camera footage released the next day, the driver can be heard telling officers that his child was in the car crying. Officers ordered the boy out of the car, still pointing their weapons and told the child to put his hands up.

“Can you take the gun off him, bro?” the driver tells the officer. “Can you take that gun off him? He’s 8 years old, man.”

The man, later identified as Anthony Fuller, said he misstated his son’s age in the pressure of the moment; the boy had turned 9 about two weeks earlier. Fuller was cited for reckless driving and released.

Police, who impounded Fuller’s car, said the officer was not pointing his gun at the child but the vehicle the boy was in.

Soon after the stop, attorney Dante Pride filed a claim on behalf of Fuller’s son against the city of San Diego stating that officers violated the boy’s constitutional rights and used excessive force.

Serious consequences

San Diego Police officers take part in a de-escalation training course

San Diego Police officers take part in a de-escalation training course in September 2020 that utilizes interactive video projected scenarios.

(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The use of force by California law enforcement agencies generally is pretty rare, occurring in about 1 percent of police stops across the state.

For San Diego police and sheriff’s deputies, the rate is slightly higher. Data show the county’s two largest law enforcement agencies reported that force was deployed on 9,849 people — about 2 percent of the total people stopped.

Even so, use of force cases can have serious consequences beyond any injuries suffered by the people police and sheriff’s deputies subdue.

Community activists and people on social media criticized the March 9 incident involving San Diego police, for example. They cited the Park Boulevard stop, which was nationally reported, as an example of how traumatic forceful encounters with police can be for communities of color.

“As a mother of an 8-year-old boy, I felt rage imagining the life-long impact that this horrific incident will have on the child and his family,” said Nancy Maldonado, president and CEO of the Chicano Federation.

“The image of the little boy holding his tiny hands out the window was heartbreaking,” she said.

Community mistrust can deepen when police agencies refuse to acknowledge they mishandled a particular situation, Maldonado added.

“Mistakes will be made — no one is expecting perfection, but we do expect accountability,” she said. “The fact that SDPD’s initial response was to attempt to justify and defend their response only serves to compound the trauma.”

One way to promote accountability is through the courts.

Both San Diego city and county have been repeatedly sued by plaintiffs alleging officers and sheriff’s deputies wrongly used force during encounters with suspects, or even regular citizens.

William Carr, for example, claimed in a federal lawsuit filed in 2019 that sheriff’s deputies wrongly beat and arrested him during a health emergency. Carr was the only Black person among a group of churchgoers who stopped at a diner after attending church in Encinitas.

The suit claimed deputies “forcibly head-locked and slammed him to the ground” rather than provide treatment for his dangerously low blood-sugar level. The case is pending in U.S. District Court.

Leobardo Caro of San Marcos sued San Diego County in August after a sheriff’s deputy pepper-sprayed him on the front porch of his own home after the deputy told him to take a seat and he sat on a sofa rather than a nearby chair.

Caro, who is Latino, told the deputy he had a bad back and the chair would exacerbate his condition, but the deputy resorted to force, the legal complaint alleged.

“Mr. Caro’s only reaction was lowering his head in pain,” the lawsuit said. “Despite this, and without any warning or justification, defendant immediately stepped forward, shook his pepper spray can, reached under Mr. Caro’s face, pointed the canister upward and blasted Mr. Caro a second time into his face from a few inches away.”

The county Board of Supervisors last year voted to settle the case for $105,000.

‘System isn’t working’

The disparities revealed by the Union-Tribune’s analysis were not disputed by community leaders, elected officials or members of law enforcement. But agreeing on specific steps to reduce or eliminate biases in local policing has been more difficult.

Some say building stronger relationships between law enforcement agencies and the communities they police should be a cornerstone of any effort to address the persistent disparity.

Others say officials need to boost training, particularly around what’s known as implicit bias, procedural justice and de-escalation strategies.

“We found that, on average, police officers require less suspicion to search Black and Hispanic drivers than they do White drivers,” said Cheryl Phillips, who researches policing at Stanford University. “It’s a double standard.”

Law enforcement officials should consider eliminating police practices like vehicle stops for equipment violations and direct their officers and deputies to rethink discretionary stops when it comes to minorities, Phillips said.

“The data is not just saying the system isn’t working right,” she said. “There is evidence of discrimination.”

Christie Hill, an advocacy director with the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said the only way to confront racial disparities in law enforcement is for communities to reimagine how public safety is created and maintained and to reduce the presence of police.

“We can’t train our way out of what’s happening in our communities,” she said. “We have to reduce the role of police in our communities and invest in community-driven and community-based solutions by divesting from the police budget.”

The ACLU is a member of the Coalition of Police Accountability and Transparency, a coalition of community groups that came together in 2016 after a San Diego State University study found officers were more likely to search minorities even though White people were found with illegal items more often.

Last summer, amid the nationwide protests over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police in Minnesota and Kentucky, respectively, the coalition published a roadmap to reform it called Police Accountability Now.

One key change proposed by the coalition would require officers to have probable cause to stop, search or detain anyone — a more stringent legal standard than the “reasonable suspicion” model officers use today.

Another major policy shift would be to decriminalize or deprioritize low-level offenses like disturbing the peace, encroachment and petty theft —offenses that disproportionately affect the poor and mentally ill.

Local departments have implemented some changes in recent months.

Within days of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, every law enforcement agency in San Diego County prohibited the carotid restraint, a specific chokehold that can cut off a suspect’s air supply and lead to death.

The San Diego Police Department also unveiled a policy requiring officers to de-escalate encounters when they can and intervene if they see another officer using unreasonable force.

Both the San Diego police and sheriff’s departments have partnered with the Center for Policing Equity, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps law enforcement officials analyze data and craft policy changes to reduce racial disparities. The findings are expected later this year.

Capt. Jordon said he hopes the report will help his department — and the community — understand the factors that fuel disparity more clearly.

“Ultimately, these results are going to produce conversations about what changes communities are willing to accept,” he said. “We have to balance public safety while also reducing disparate impacts.”

The Sheriff’s Department declined to respond to questions about disparities in law enforcement stops.

For his part, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said the city has long had data supporting the existence of racial disparities in policing, and he is committed to eliminating discriminatory and biased behavior by officers.

On Friday, Gloria announced a series of policy proposals designed to address those disparities.

“It’s time for the city to take a hard look at and update its police practices for modern times,” he said in a statement. “Every San Diegan should feel safe in our city and have trust in our police department.”

Force used by San Diego officers and deputies, canine, baton, chemical spray