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Inconsistent Pandemic Enforcement Drives Home the Need for Better Police Oversight

The San Diego Police Homeless Outreach Team alongside several service providers evaluate homeless residents to see who is eligible for placement into shelters amid the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“We have decided not to enforce the law at this time.” This is what the San Diego Police Department said in a statement to the media [1] regarding not making arrests or issuing citations at an April 18 protest of the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Read that literally. “We have decided not to enforce the law at this time.” The police have admitted that they decide when to enforce the law, and when something is just not worth their time.

They decide when a protest requires a criminal arrest or a citation, and when it’s a natural outlet for a frustrated populace. They decide when to enforce the law, and that decision is not always based on whether public safety is at risk.

For example, they can decide to stop clearing encampments and ticketing homeless San Diegans and follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control [2]. They just choose not to [3]. They can decide to stop over-ticketing youth in southeastern San Diego and San Ysidro for “breaking curfew” when teenagers in Mira Mesa and La Jolla are pleasantly unaware the curfew even exists. They can decide to stop disproportionately handcuffing members of the LGBTQ+ community, stop disproportionately pulling over people of color [4], and stop using more force than 93 percent of police departments in California [5].

“We have decided not to enforce the law at this time.”

San Diego law enforcement makes a lot of excuses for data that clearly shows disturbing patterns. For example, when the ACLU-commissioned study [6] showing racial profiling by SDPD came out last year, San Diego Police Officers Association president Jack Schaeffer wrote an op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune [7] trying to remove blame from the department. In trying to explain away disproportionate traffic stops in black and brown communities, he blamed the unemployment rate. “Financial inability to properly maintain a vehicle might lead to increased police stops,” he wrote. “It shouldn’t be a surprise that a higher rate of stops to address vehicle issues … occur in these areas.”

Schaeffer is correct about systemic issues of poverty and lack of opportunity in these neighborhoods. However, he is incorrect that disproportionate enforcement of the law is justified by it – especially when that enforcement too often includes using violence and force. That goes double now that we know the police decide when the law is worth enforcing.

I’m willing to believe not ticketing or citing protesters at the Liberate California event this past weekend was the right call. Maybe it was healthier for the officers to keep their distance. Maybe SDPD really is worried about slipping into authoritarian rule in which First Amendment speech is no longer protected. But when a group of people demanding to cause massive harm to public health are not seen as a public safety threat, then why are they giving out citations to homeless San Diegans who have nowhere to go to escape the rain – let alone a pandemic? Why are they citing small business owners who are just trying to make ends meet?

“We have decided not to enforce the law at this time.”

It is all too easy to go from “protect and serve” to “harass and oppress” when there is no community oversight or accountability. The community needs the tools to appropriately audit, review and investigate important decisions by the San Diego Police Department to ensure that they are fair and transparent – and to keep imprudent officers from tarnishing the reputations of their fellow officers and the department as a whole.

An independent, community-led Commission on Police Practices is now in the meet-and-confer process between the police union and the city. This is the last step before City Council must vote to put the measure on the ballot for the voters’ approval.  While our City Council and mayor are understandably focused on the COVID-19 crisis, issues of accountability are more important than ever and we cannot allow another election to go by without addressing the ability of San Diegans to hold SDPD accountable for their decisions. The mayor needs to push along the meet-and-confer process, and the City Council must vote to put the measure on the ballot as soon as possible.

The commission structure as proposed by Women Occupy San Diego and the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association would give San Diego the tools we need to rebuild after COVID-19 with more government accountability and more community trust in law enforcement.

Andrea St. Julian is the author of the Women Occupy San Diego ballot proposal, president of Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association and co-chair of San Diegans for Justice.