What's Changed – and What Hasn't – for Policing in San Diego

Public Safety

What's Changed – and What Hasn't – for Policing in San Diego

In more than a year since George Floyd’s death, San Diego police agencies have adopted changes big and small. Yet it’s also true that even this once-in-a-generation moment couldn’t carry some reform measures across the finish line.

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

The racial justice protests that spilled into streets across the country, the kneeling lawmakers, the unprecedented interest from citizens in bureaucratic processes like the city budget – it was all hailed as a watershed moment in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Floyd’s death last year did indeed spur policy changes big and small – including from entities that had long been resistant to change.

Yet it’s also true that even this once-in-a-generation momentum for policing reform couldn’t carry some measures – even those touted as lawmakers’ highest priorities and those seen as relatively low-hanging fruit – across the finish line.

For Julia Yoo, a San Diego civil rights lawyer and president of the National Police Accountability Project, perhaps the most important change over the last year has been the demand for change itself.

“The importance of the voice of the people cannot be overstated,” she wrote in an email. “In the past year, [the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board] reversed itself after a number of citizens called in to passionately speak on behalf of Elisa Serna, who was left to die in her cell after staff members watched her suffer a seizure and lose consciousness. There is a call for the district attorney to criminally charge those who were responsible. There was a public outcry after Jesse Evans was tackled in La Jolla. It was the actions of the citizens who got involved when they witnessed a violation of a man’s rights that brought this to the forefront.”

Here’s an overview of some of the biggest changes to policing in San Diego over the last year – and the efforts that have fallen short.

What’s Changed

The district attorney ended civil gang injunctions.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced in April that she had put an end to civil gang injunctions by petitioning the Superior Court to lift the permanent restraining orders that controlled where people on the injunction lists could go, what colors they could wear and how late they could stay out.

For years, police and prosecutors defended the use of the injunctions. But Stephan said she made the decision to remove the remaining names of alleged gang members from an injunction list with the support of officials from around the county and in response to community feedback.

Criminal justice advocates have argued that the injunctions caused severe emotional and material harm by preventing people from seeing their own family members. Stephan herself acknowledged that the injunctions made it difficult for people who were trying to get a job. Challenging an injunction wasn’t easy or common.

Some of the San Diegans on the receiving end of an injunction hadn’t even been convicted of a misdemeanor, said Jamie Wilson, an organizer with Pillars of the Community. She wrote in an op-ed last year that most crimes committed by gang members are crimes of poverty and that the injunctions were not, as law enforcement agencies claimed, keeping communities safer.

The end of civil gang injunctions in San Diego County is part of a larger trend in California. In 2018, a federal court halted the enforcement of civil gang injunctions in Los Angeles County after the ACLU and others sued. They argued that the injunctions were arbitrarily applied and unconstitutional.

SDPD no longer controls the city’s Office of Homeland Security.

In San Diego’s fiscal year 2022 budget, Mayor Todd Gloria separated the city’s Office of Homeland Security from its Police Department as part of a wider effort to de-militarize the city’s emergency response. Gloria’s predecessor, Kevin Faulconer, put the Office of Homeland Security under SDPD’s purview in 2019, giving cops more say over the distribution of anti-terrorism funds regionwide.

Gloria has also expressed support for a surveillance ordinance approved by the City Council late last year, before he took office, as well as the creation of a privacy advisory board. Neither has come up for discussion in 2021, but Gloria set aside funding for a project manager who will oversee and coordinate the implementation of the surveillance ordinance.

Police departments across the county banned chokeholds.

In June 2020, at the height of outrage over Floyd’s death, Faulconer announced “the police chief’s decision to immediately stop this particular restraint that has led to so much concern and frustration by many in our minority communities.”

San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit speaks at a press conference announcing the department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

But there was nothing “immediate” about the decision – it followed years of pleading by Black community advocates to end the practice, a request the San Diego Police Department and others consistently denied as they insisted the restraint was necessary.

Soon after the SDPD announcement, 15 other San Diego County law enforcement agencies announced they too would ban the move.

Months later, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill banning all police agencies in the state from using the carotid restraint.

Voters approved a much tougher police oversight board.

San Diego voters in November overwhelmingly passed Measure B, creating a new entity called the Commission on Police Practices that has its own legal counsel, subpoena power and a mandate to recommend policy changes.

But persuading voters appears to have been the easy part.

The effort to write the ordinance has been beset with setbacks. First, advocates questioned what was taking so long, then community members and experts flagged so many concerns with the draft ordinance that a City Council committee sent it back to the drawing board. Now, the city attorney has offloaded the re-write to an outside attorney, following concerns about the city attorney’s involvement in creating a group that’s supposed to be independent from her office.

Candidates are disavowing police union support – and one of them won.

Police unions have long had a powerful place in California politics, and San Diego is no different. Even as racial justice protests raged last summer, Gloria embraced the endorsement of the San Diego Police Officers Association.

But other Democratic candidates have been taking a different path.

Two of the candidates in the special election to fill the vacant 79th Assembly District seat said they would not accept an endorsement or financial support from police unions. One of them, Akilah Weber, went on to win the seat. She raised far more than her competitors even with the promise not to accept police union money.

Weber said she’d work with police groups on reform measures and other issues that involved them, “but I would not take their endorsement, nor would I take their money.”

If Weber was hoping to emphasize the potentially toxic nature of police unions’ involvement in politics, well, they ended up making that point for her.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber, left, swears in her daughter, Akilah Weber, to the state Assembly. / Image courtesy of the Assembly Democratic Caucus

A political committee funded by law enforcement groups that supported one of Weber’s opponents sent out a mailer in the closing days of the race that depicted buildings on fire with a picture of Weber smiling next to the flames. “Akilah Weber didn’t support our local businesses when they needed her most,” the ad reads. (In reality, Weber joined other La Mesa officials in declaring a curfew the night of the unrest, and supported a later request for the National Guard to provide security in the city.)

Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the local Democratic Party chair, condemned the ad as “objectively racist.”

Now, as candidates begin vying for 2022 races, at least one running for San Diego City Council has said he won’t accept a police union endorsement, and doesn’t believe others should either.

“I repudiate the idea that enforcers of the law should dangle political power, donations and influence over makers of that law,” wrote Joel Day, a candidate for City Council District 6, in an op-ed.

The City Council wiped the seditious language statute from the books.

Voice of San Diego revealed in 2020 that SDPD officers were using a century-old law to punish free speech. Two of the most disturbing aspects of the law – aside from the fact that the law itself was clearly unconstitutional – is that the tickets were largely doled out to Black residents, and that they were often given to people who simply said things officers didn’t like.

SDPD said it would stop using the law, and the City Council moved quickly to wipe it from the books.

Yet many questions about its use remain. No SDPD official has answered whether a directive went out to use the law. Nor has any SDPD official said whether officers who ticketed citizens for speech will be punished.

What Hasn’t Changed

Many of the highest-priority statewide reforms failed.

Though the state did pass some policing reforms in the wake of Floyd’s death (like banning chokeholds after many cities had moved to do so on their own), most of the highest-profile measures fell short.

The most notable failure was a bill that would have created a process to decertify police officers. In 2019, a statewide investigation by news outlets across the state, including Voice of San Diego, found that hundreds of police officers in California have themselves been convicted of crimes – and many are still on the job.

In many ways, the bill was uncontroversial: California is one of only four states that doesn’t already have a process to automatically decertify officers who commit serious misconduct. But it failed.

Another bill by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez sought to ban the use of police kinetic projectiles and chemical agents to disperse protests. It was introduced following a spree of high-profile injuries of demonstrators after police responded violently to racial justice protests.

And Sen. Nancy Skinner sought to expand her landmark legislation opening up certain police records. SB 776 would have further expanded public records access to police records related to wrongful arrests and searches and all uses of force. It also would have required the disclosure of records in cases where an officer quits before an investigation into their misconduct is complete.

All three measures were fiercely opposed by police unions. The collective failure of the measures was a “demonstration that law enforcement unions still hold serious sway at the Capitol,” the Los Angeles Times wrote.

New versions of all three of those measures are currently making their way through the Legislature. They’re all alive for now – but that was also true at this point last year.

Police are still stopping and searching Black and Brown residents at rates far higher than their share of the population. And they’re still saying racial profiling isn’t the reason why.

The concern perhaps most directly tied to Floyd’s case is racial profiling, and whether police target Black and Brown citizens for trivial transgressions, and are quicker to search them and deploy force against them.

Numerous studies and analyses over the years have shown that law enforcement groups statewide, and the San Diego Police Department and San Diego County Sheriff’s Department in particular, stop and search Black residents at rates far higher than their share of the population.

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 SDPD officers and sheriff’s 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.

Police data provided to VOSD showed that of the nearly 120 people arrested during racial justice protests from May 31 to June 2, 2020, at least 70 percent were people of color.

SDPD officials dismissed both of those findings and argued the analyses were flawed, but here’s what an analysis commissioned by the department itself recently found, as reported by VOSD’s Jesse Marx:

“After accounting for external factors, the new report found that Black people experience non-traffic stops 4.2 times more often as White people and were subjected to force 4.8 times as often as White people. During non-traffic stops, Asian and Latino people were searched 1.4 times as often as White people. Black and Latino people were also more likely to be searched during traffic stops, and Latino people were subjected to force 1.2 times as often as White people.”

Despite the consistency of the various analyses, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit and other police leaders have insisted that the disparities are not evidence of bias or discrimination.

In April, Nisleit told the City Council that he would be revising SDPD procedure so that officers needed to get clear and expressed consent before conducting a search, and notify individuals of their right to refuse a search. He also vowed to create a new procedure for interactions with transgender and gender non-binary people.

Police chiefs almost exclusively come from within.

Advocates for racial justice have also called in recent years for police departments to bring in new leaders — people who can bring fresh eyes and ideas and who aren’t already entrenched in the local culture. More often than not, though, an internal candidate is elevated to the top.

Every city in the region with its own police department has a police chief who was a veteran of the department they now lead.

Within the last five years alone, San Diego, Chula Vista, Carlsbad, Escondido, Oceanside and La Mesa have all hired new police chiefs. Though the departments mostly trumpeted that they were conducting a nationwide search, they all hired from within their existing ranks.

Escondido Police Chief Ed Varso speaks at the Take a Knee for Racial Justice and Community Unity event. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In Oceanside, racial justice and community groups protested when the city manager announced a plan to consider only internal candidates in hiring for the department’s top job. The city manager agreed to open up the process to outside candidates – but ultimately hired a department veteran.

Many advocates have questioned whether true, transformational change can take place without a fresh perspective.

Roddrick Colvin, a criminal justice professor at San Diego State University, told VOSD’s Kayla Jimenez earlier this year, “Internal candidates tend to keep the ship afloat,” because they’re already familiar with local communities and city councils. The top levels of police departments don’t typically undergo major changes unless there’s been a major political scandal.

But even then, Colvin said, outside candidates are not necessarily of a different stock. “There’s not a lot of differences between police chiefs nationwide,” he said, because outside candidates are still likely to have the same credentials and backgrounds as internal ones.

Use-of-force incidents aren’t going down, and prosecutions of officers aren’t going up.

Police use-of-force incidents ticked up slightly statewide and in San Diego County in 2020. There were 708 use-of-force incidents statewide in 2020, up from 703 statewide in 2019. There were 56 use-of-force incidents in San Diego County in 2020, up from 51 in 2019.

The number of civilians who were subject to  severe use of force at the hands of an SDPD officer nearly doubled in 2020, from eight incidents each in 2018 and 2019 to 15 in 2020, according to statistics from the California Department of Justice.

None of the people killed by SDPD officers in 2020 was White. None of the people killed by SDPD officers in 2019 was White. None of the people killed by SDPD officers in 2018 was White.

Despite the passage of a law that tightened the standards for when police can use deadly force and mandated de-escalation training, only two prosecutions of officers have been directly attributed to the law (one of which is happening in San Diego) and departments are wildly inconsistent in implementing the trainings, a CalMatters analysis found.

In the meantime, Nisleit has said SDPD in summer 2021 would begin tracking instances in which an officer shows a “less-lethal force option, but does not deploy it” — like when an officer takes out a taser but doesn’t discharge it, or reveals the presence of a K9 but doesn’t actually release the animal. That data is supposed to be collected and reviewed by a new Force Analysis Unit.

Far from being defunded, police budgets are going up.

A lot changed in the year following Floyd’s death – San Diego got a new mayor and several new Council members, and a global pandemic happened.

But one thing remained the same: San Diego increased police funding amid demands to do the opposite, both at the height of racial justice protests in 2020 and again in 2021. The latest budget signed by Gloria marked the 11th consecutive year the city budget hiked police spending.

San Diego isn’t alone. Places like Escondido also raised police spending this year.

A Voice of San Diego poll conducted in October 2020 found that more San Diego County residents support reallocating police funding toward social services than those who oppose it.

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