Police Chief David Nisleit and Mayor Todd Gloria appear together earlier this month. Courtesy OnScene.TV

A report released Thursday found distinct racial disparities in police contacts – including searches, traffic stops and arrests – over a recent five-year period in San Diego.

The Center for Policing Equity at Yale University conducted the analysis of interactions in cooperation with the San Diego Police Department.

They embarked on the effort in 2019, as one of several steps taken to comply with the state’s Racial and Identity Profiling Act, which mandates how police data is collected.

After accounting for neighborhood demographics and rates of crime and poverty, researchers found that Black people, who comprise roughly 6% of the residential population served by SDPD:

  • Experienced non-traffic police stops 4.2 times as often in San Diego as white people did over the period;
  • Made up nearly a quarter of non-traffic police stops;
  • In traffic stops were searched 2.5 times as often, compared to whites;
  • Were subjected to force 4.8 times as often as white people, and
  • Faced use of force more often. Among those dealt with by use of force, 26.3%  were Black.

The three most common types of force are holds, firearm-pointing and “takedowns,” according to the report.

“The data is clear – we have work to do,” Mayor Todd Gloria said in response to the findings. “We’ve known for some time that racial disparities exist in policing, and I want to commend our police department for commissioning (a) study that takes a deeper dive to determine how we can improve.”

In addition, the researchers found Hispanic people were searched 2.2 times more frequently as compared to whites.

Conducted as part of the CPE’s National Justice Database project, the report examined data from 2016-2020 from three police practices: traffic stops, non-traffic stops and use of force.

The overriding goal was to identify any racial disparities in police interactions with members of the public and determine the extent to which those inequalities were caused by practices or other factors outside of the SDPD’s direct control, according to the research center.

While asserting that the SDPD “strives to treat all San Diegans equally when working to address crime in our city,”  Chief David Nisleit acknowledged that department officials had “anticipated that the findings would likely show disparities in our interactions and bring up pain felt by some of our communities of color.”

“SDPD expects officers to act professionally every single day and with every contact,” Nisleit said. “The department looks forward to how this report and community feedback can help us improve our practices and strengthen the ties we have with San Diegans.”

Citizens will have a chance to learn more about the issues raised in the report and air their opinions during two virtual community forums, including one tailored for youths – at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and 5:30 p.m. June 30.

“This isn’t an easy conversation to have, but it’s an important one, and I encourage every San Diegan to join us, listen and share (their) thoughts on how we can improve public safety together,” Gloria said.

The research center provided the department with a range of potential steps to take, from improving its data-collection protocols to investigating disparities and risk factors in more depth. They also suggested the city could develop targeted interventions to address those factors.

“The findings from this report will inform the SDPD’s longer-term commitment to creating an inclusive and data-driven approach to equitable policing,” according to an SDPD statement. “In the coming months, SDPD will continue to explore the causes of the racial disparities identified in the analysis while seeking the insight of Black, Brown and other communities most impacted by disparate policing.”

The center’s analysis asserts that racial disparities among those involved in police contacts “are important to measure because they shed light on specific sources of frustration and the risk of harmful outcomes in communities – an essential step in identifying effective reforms.”

“But disparities do not necessarily indicate that police officers have engaged in biased or discriminatory behavior toward different racial groups,” the authors of the report wrote, noting that “both internal and external factors … could contribute to disparities in policing practices.”

The internal factors could include policies and procedures, or certain police units that contribute to a high portion of stops or implicit and explicit biases of officers, according to the report.

The report can be viewed online at sandiego.gov/CPEreport.

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