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October 28, 2021

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Global Business News

Policing reforms came to San Diego, but for activists the biggest changes remain elusive

For weeks after the death of George Floyd, protests across the country highlighting racial injustice and bias in policing were near daily. Hundreds and occasionally thousands of people marched San Diego’s streets last summer, demanding reform.

Change did come. Across San Diego, the heads of local law enforcement agencies agreed to a long-sought ban on using the carotid restraint, or sleeper hold, and it soon became state law. Some change came through the ballot box, like the voter-approved creation of an independent commission on police practices in San Diego.

But are they they right changes? Do they address the systemic disparities that have been highlighted by people who have long pushed for reforms? Some of them don’t think so.

“I think the frustration we’re hearing from communities is that it doesn’t actually change the entrenched policing culture that has produced the outcomes that we see,” said Ram Subramanian, managing director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “It doesn’t really change the way police fundamentally interact with their own community.”

Among the big reforms that remain elusive: a ban on consent searches, regulating or eliminating pretext stops, and decriminalizing low-level offenses.

Those ideas are not off the table in San Diego. Mayor Todd Gloria last month proposed several policing changes, including limiting the use of pretext searches and stops.

“It’s time for the city to take a hard look at and update its police practices for modern times,” Gloria said in the news release introducing the plan.

Since Floyd’s death, at least 30 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted one or more statewide legislative policing reforms, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Most of the changes were directly related to the circumstances of Floyd’s killing: use of force; the duty of officers to intervene when police misconduct occurs, and decertification or other policies related to how officer misconduct is addressed.

Reform comes to San Diego

People flooded the streets across the country after video of Floyd’s May 25 death under the knee of a White police officer in Minneapolis spread. In San Diego, thousands decried racial injustice and bias in policing, and demanded reform.

A week after Floyd’s death, San Diego police Chief David Nisleit made a surprise announcement: use of the carotid restraint, also known as the sleeper hold, “stops immediately.”

“It’s the right thing to do for our community,” he said at the time. “It’s the right thing to do for our officers.”

Some activists cheered Nisleit’s quick move. Critics said the ban was long overdue and done to placate protesters.

Within two days, all law enforcement agencies in San Diego County agreed to ban the hold. By the end of the week, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered that the hold no longer be taught to police recruits. Statewide legislation later followed, and now the hold is illegal in California.

The pressure for reform continued. More change came.

San Diego police and the county Sheriff’s Department, the region’s largest law enforcement agencies, declined interviews last week, but each agency sent over highlights of recent reforms.

The Police Department took several steps, including codifying standalone de-escalation and duty-to-intervene policies. The Sheriff’s Department updated its use-of-force policy and drafted a formal directive requiring employees to intervene and report when they see excessive force.

The Sheriff’s Department noted more than a dozen changes, including increased de-escalation training from two hours to six and creation of advisory groups, including one to improve recruitment from Black and Latino communities.

The Sheriff’s Department also said it added a “safety deputy” designation, a person whose “sole responsibility is to monitor the health and safety of a subject being restrained during a use of force incident.”

Last summer, the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to give more investigative power to the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, which looks at citizen complaints against local sheriff’s deputies and probation officers. The board also agreed to speed up the creation of teams of clinicians and other trained professionals to respond to nonviolent incidents involving people in behavioral or mental health crises, rather than sending armed law enforcement.

Nisleit highlighted his department’s plan in an April 30 memo to City Council members. The plan includes revising procedure on consent searches to “outline new guidelines for having clear, expressed consent to search a person or property, defining the scope and intensity of a search and the need to notify individuals of their right to refuse a search.”

The mayor’s public safety reform proposals call for a look into limiting the use of consent searches and pretext stops — when an officer pulls someone over for a minor traffic offense or an equipment violation as a means to investigate a more serious crime — and possible alternatives to arresting people for low-level offenses. Those are primary policing changes that advocates continue to press for.

Detective Jack Schaeffer, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, has said the mayor and his staff talked with the union while crafting the proposals. He said Friday he is thankful lawmakers want police input “because we are the ones that really understand what some of the consequences that might be unintended could be for some of these new sweeping rules.”

“And some of the ideas I have heard are probably not bad ideas at all,” he said. “Some are very good ideas, and some of them less so.”

At the state level, last summer’s outcry led lawmakers to introduce a flurry of reform bills. Despite the early momentum, only a few made it into law. This year, several public safety reforms are again in the mix.

“I think we are in a good place, not a great place,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said Friday. “We got off to a quick start that seemed to have stalled, but I feel like people are still taking these efforts seriously.”

The San Diego Democrat said there is still “some momentum and perhaps more thoughtfulness.”

“I think this year, giving it a little more time to breathe, I think we are going to come out with better, more thoughtful legislation,” she said.

Current bills include a proposal to decertify law enforcement officers if they are fired for misconduct or convicted of certain crimes, to prevent them from getting new law enforcement jobs elsewhere. California is among a handful of states without such a law.

Other bills include a duty-to-intercede requirement and prohibitions against techniques that involve substantial risk of positional asphyxia.

Racial disparities exist

While the policy changes may be steps in the right direction, advocates and some policing experts say a true reimagining of public safety hinges on limiting when and why police interact with community members in the first place.

For years, study after study has shown that people of color, but especially Blacks, are stopped, searched and arrested at higher rates than their White counterparts.

A recent analysis by The San Diego Union-Tribune of nearly 500,000 stops made by the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department echoed those findings.

Nearly one in five stops made by the San Diego Police Department from July 2018 through December 2020 involved Black people, even though they make up less than 6 percent of the city’s population, the analysis showed.

San Diego officers also were more likely to use force on Black and Latino people than Whites, while sheriff’s deputies were more likely to use force on Native Americans than Whites.

Both departments searched Black and Native American people at higher rates than Whites. According to Sheriff’s Department data, those two minority groups were less likely to be found with contraband than Whites who were searched.

In 2016, after a San Diego State University study found officers were more likely to search minorities, even though White people were found with illegal items more often, several San Diego community organizations came together to form the Coalition of Police Accountability and Transparency.

Last summer, the coalition published a roadmap to reform called Police Accountability Now. The series of proposals, in many ways, is designed reduce the presence of police in communities across the county by reimagining how public safety is created and maintained.

“The system is racist — systemically racist,” Francine Maxwell, president of the NAACP San Diego chapter, said of policing. “It’s not about ‘bad apples.’ It’s about the whole tree, the roots. It’s about redirecting and reimagining law enforcement.”

One key change proposed by the coalition would require officers to have probable cause to stop, search or detain anyone — a more stringent legal standard than the “reasonable suspicion” model officers use today.

Another major policy shift would be to decriminalize or deprioritize low-level offenses like disturbing the peace, encroachment and petty theft —offenses that disproportionately affect the poor and mentally ill.

Subramanian, with the Brennan Center for Justice, said the modern-day police officer is often and inappropriately expected to handle a whole host of situations that have nothing or very little to do with crime. Communities may be better served by identifying the situations that could be better addressed with public health professionals or other kinds of service providers.

Police union president Schaeffer said he agrees with using professionals other than police to address some matters. But, he said, he feels that some of the demanded changes could have “more negative consequences than positive.”

“We need to be able to enforce quality-of-life stuff,” he said. “That’s what the residents want.”

Videos underscore concerns

Despite shifts in policy, bystander video continues to catch police encounters that, for some, indicate how far police reform has yet to go.

Protesters gathered outside San Diego police headquarters in March after video surfaced of a traffic stop that ended with police guns drawn as the driver’s 9-year-old son stepped out of the car. The video showed an officer pointing his firearm toward the child as the driver asks officers to “take the gun off” the boy. Police said the officer was pointing his gun toward the the vehicle, not the child.

And earlier this month, outrage erupted over cellphone video, recorded by a witness, of police officers repeatedly punching 34-year-old Jesse Evans, who is homeless, in the face and legs while they attempted to arrest him for urinating in public in La Jolla.

“Everyone saw him as a human being, except law enforcement,” Maxwell said. “That’s the root cause that needs to be changed. How much longer do we have to watch videos like this?”

The Police Department on Friday released body-worn camera video of the incident. A department spokesman has said the internal affairs unit is investigating.