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Thursday, April 25, 2024 | Back issues
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San Diego Police Chief Grilled Over Report on Police Bias

San Diego’s City Council members and the public pressed San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman on Wednesday to address racial bias by San Diego police officers during traffic stops.

SAN DIEGO (CN) – San Diego’s City Council members and the public pressed San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman on Wednesday to address racial bias by San Diego police officers during traffic stops.

“So you acknowledge there is a difference in how people of color are policed versus whites,” outgoing San Diego City Council President pro tem Marti Emerald asked Zimmerman at a special meeting Wednesday.

“Every human being has bias,” Zimmerman responded. “We acknowledge the statistics show a disparity.”

The dissatisfaction by audience members in the packed City Council chambers was audible when Zimmerman failed to directly acknowledge a study recently released by San Diego State University researchers that revealed bias toward those whom San Diego police officers stop, interview and search during traffic stops.

San Diego was once a national leader in collecting traffic stop data – it was one of the first cities in the nation to collect demographic data on traffic stops starting in 2000 – but the practice fell by the wayside until local journalists pressed the department on why it had failed to follow its own policy and collect the data.

More than a decade later, the City Council ordered a study on recent data collected on traffic stops.

The 130-page study, conducted by San Diego State professors Joshua Chanin, Megan Welsh, Dana Nurge and Stuart Henry, analyzed nearly 260,000 traffic stops initiated by SDPD officers between Jan. 1, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2015.

It found black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be stopped, searched and interviewed, but were less likely to be found with illegal contraband than white drivers who were stopped and searched.

One of the biggest points of concern touched on by the researchers, City Council members on the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee and the public was that the traffic-stop data collected by officers following the interactions were often incomplete or even missing.

Chanin told the City Council some 25,000 to 30,000 traffic-stop cards were missing, raising questions about the process in place by the police department to collect the data. And a significant number of officers interviewed by the researchers – 72 percent – said completing the traffic-stop cards was not a worthwhile use of their time.

To many of the black and Hispanic residents in attendance, the study just confirmed what they already know: there is bias in the way policing is conducted in their neighborhoods versus predominately white communities.

Armond King was one of the first speakers to address the council committee. He asked why it’s easy for him and his friends to be documented as gang members in a police data base – whether they are truly affiliated with a gang or not – but why the department isn’t tracking which officers may be racially profiling during police stops.

“I and the community I represent didn’t need this study. There is a simple solution: Just stop racially profiling. I’ve been racially profiled my entire life, since I was a kid. This is a reality,” King said.

Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the San Diego American Civil Liberties Union, raised concerns about what she called the “race out of place” approach, where some officers interviewed acknowledged they would stop and interview people whose race does not match the neighborhood they were in.

On page 76 of the study for example, one officer said: “I’m not going to lie. If I see somebody that’s totally out of place and there’s a reason to stop them, I’m going to stop them and ask them what they’re doing.”

Another officer said field interviews are the “bread and butter of any gang investigator.”

There were some criticisms directed at the researchers for using a controversial methodology called “The veil of darkness,” which compared traffic stops during the day – when officers could presumably see a driver’s race – to stops made at night. Center on Policy Initiatives research director Peter Brownell said using the stops after dark as a control group doesn’t account for areas with nighttime lighting or other factors that could affect the reliability of that method.

But Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, who represents Council District 4 spanning many of San Diego’s black and Latino neighborhoods, said whether the figures from the study are absolutely accurate is irrelevant because it reveals what many already know: there is bias in San Diego policing.

“I am not surprised at the findings, but I’m disappointed,” Cole said before looking directly at Zimmerman and saying, “Chief, we need it to stop.”

Zimmerman said the department has already taken steps to address bias and that advanced officer training that will be implemented next year to further address bias in policing.

Emerald, who is being termed out at the end of the year, cautioned the report should be taken seriously and that the city needs to invest in implementing the recommendations.

“I think it is obvious the city has work to do,” she said. “This is not one of those reports we want to end up sitting on a shelf.”

Thanks to a motion by Cole, which the members of the committee voted unanimously in favor of, that won’t happen. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the police department will have to address the findings in the report and implement recommendations the City Council may make.

The City Council will consider the full report in February.

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