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While 2020 shone a harsh spotlight on police killings – the most extreme and irreversible action an officer can carry out – it also illuminated the ways police target Black San Diegans for more minor interactions that can nonetheless have a major impact on their lives.
In late 2019, before the primary had whittled the mayoral contestants down to two, activist and candidate Tasha Williamson made a striking comment about San Diego’s political priorities: “We are talking about scooters and bikes so passionately,” she said, “but I can’t get police officers to stop killing people.”
Less than a year later, demonstrators flooded streets across the country, including throughout San Diego, to protest police treatment of Black Americans.
Yet while 2020 shone a harsh spotlight on police killings – the most extreme and irreversible action an officer can carry out – it also illuminated the ways police target Black San Diegans for more minor interactions that can nonetheless have a major impact on their lives.
Police were more likely to ticket Black San Diegans for seditious language – an unconstitutional law that the City Council has since wiped from the books. Police were more likely to cite Black people for riding the trolley without a ticket, and search them during a vehicle stop (even though Black people were less likely to have contraband). Officers were more likely to cite Black residents for violating stay-at-home orders and arrest them for protesting these very dynamics.
Julia Yoo, a San Diego civil rights lawyer and president of the National Police Accountability Project, said that police who inappropriately target minorities for seemingly minor offenses like the seditious language citations should nonetheless be held accountable.
“We absolutely have to hold law enforcement accountable for what is presumed to be small because they’re not small to the victims,” she told me in October. “And when they’re not held accountable for seemingly small offenses, they start to engage in bigger levels of misconduct.”
A spokesman for the San Diego Police Department cautioned against drawing conclusions from comparisons of those cited or arrested for seditious language, racial justice protests or coronavirus-related violations to the city’s overall demographics. The department has similarly said in the past that numbers showing Black drivers are stopped and searched more often does not constitute evidence of discrimination.
Numerous analyses and data sets gave weight to sentiments Black San Diegans have expressed in public forums and to reporters for years: that they are targeted disproportionately by police.
An analysis published in late 2019 by Voice of San Diego and the UC San Diego Extension Center for Research showed that Black people experienced the biggest imbalance between the rates at which they were stopped by San Diego Police Department officers and San Diego County Sheriff’s Department deputies verses their share of the population. Black people were also searched more often by both agencies than members of other races, despite being found with contraband less often.
Preliminary data from 2019 released in a draft report this month by the state Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board shows that statewide, Black Californians were stopped 141 percent more frequently than their share of the population.
A separate analysis of Metropolitan Transit System enforcement also found significant disparities:
A Voice of San Diego analysis of more than 77,600 MTS citations revealed Black riders – who make up 12 to 14 percent of MTS ridership, according to surveys – received 32 percent of tickets written for violations such as failing to pay a trolley fare or to follow MTS officers’ orders.
Black riders were also overrepresented among riders who received at least 30 MTS citations last year. VOSD’s analysis showed 99 of the 232 riders who were ticketed more than two dozen times were Black. Those Black riders collectively received more than 8,500 citations.
Those analyses came from data collected in 2019, but the unique circumstances presented by the wild year that has been 2020 delivered familiar outcomes.
Police data provided to VOSD earlier this year showed that of the nearly 120 people arrested during racial justice protests from May 31 to June 2, at least 70 percent were people of color.
As those protests continued to swell, Black residents in southeastern San Diego detailed to VOSD’s Maya Srikrishnan the extent to which constant police interactions had defined their lives.
“It’s generally felt by a lot of residents that the police are not looking out for the residents here, but they are more into finding things wrong and using a heavy hand,” Barry Pollard, who runs the Urban Collaborative project and was former chair of San Diego’s citizens advisory board on police/community relations, said at the time.
Black San Diegans experienced the brunt of coronavirus crackdowns as well: “A VOSD analysis of San Diego Police Department crime data shows that Black San Diegans were cited with nearly 24 percent of all coronavirus-related offenses, despite being 6.5 percent of the population. In other words, one of our every four violations of various emergency orders went to a Black person,” we reported in July.
And when it came to how San Diego police wielded an outdated law banning seditious language – an unconstitutional measure that the San Diego City Council overturned following VOSD’s reporting on it – Black residents also bore the brunt. Of the 11 people cited for violating the law since 2018, eight were Black.
Shawn Takeuchi, a San Diego Police Department spokesman, said it’s not responsible to draw conclusions between arrest rates for certain offenses and the city’s demographic breakdown.
“I believe a strong argument can be made the group involved in the civil unrests were not representative of our city population. In other words, the demographic breakdown of this group did not mirror that of the city’s population,” Takeuchi wrote in an email. “Therefore, a comparison between those arrested to the general population would not provide any useful insight. This is improper data analysis. The same can be said for COVID enforcement citations and seditious language citations.”
Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, who’s advocated for police reform throughout her tenure, took a different view of the data. She said she’s “very concerned” by data points she believes show Black residents are overpoliced. “There are many in our communities that appreciate overall the job that officers do,” she said. “What comes in is the overpolicing of some areas and some communities, and the statistics really do tell us that story. And so we are constantly trying to find ways to bridge that gap so that everyone is treated the same.”
SDPD announced in September 2019 that it had tasked the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank, to review its police stop data. That review was expected to take six months, the Union-Tribune reported at the time – but more than a year later, it hasn’t been made public.
Takeuchi said the department hopes to have the analysis in early 2021 and could make changes based on what it says.
“The department recognizes disparities exist however equally important is that we understand police data is very complex even for experienced social scientists to analyze,” he wrote in an email. “That is why we do not form quick conclusion and partner with organizations such as the Center for Policing Equity to help us understand why disparities exists and if we can, we will alter our behavior to minimize the differences. We will not shy away from these conversations.”
At the height of racial justice protests this summer, Montgomery Steppe and then-Council President Georgette Gómez made a last-minute attempt to significantly cut funding to SDPD in the city’s yearly budget, but couldn’t cobble together enough support.
New Mayor Todd Gloria has said he doesn’t support the idea of defunding the police, so it doesn’t seem likely that future attempts would produce a different outcome.
Montgomery Steppe did, however, find support to include funding for a new Office of Race and Equity to address systemic racism within City Hall, across departments.
She told me that while the office was meant to address citywide issues, including pay equity, “I also do see the office having a liaison with the Police Department to work on and keep track of these issues and the policy solutions attached to them.”
San Diego voters in November approved a measure to replace the existing citizen-led board that reviews police misconduct and use-of-force incidents with a much stronger version that will have subpoena powers and its own attorney. The city will continue implementing that measure in 2021 and beyond.
“As we move forward, if even with all of these reforms, we as Black people, indigenous people, people of color still have to beg for others to see our humanity, then we will still have the same issues,” Montgomery Steppe said.