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Racial Data Collected From San Diego Police Traffic Stops Shows Irregularities

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman told an audience at Cherokee Point Elementary School in City Heights she's committed to regaining the trust of the community at a March 26, 2014 town hall meeting.
Megan Burks
Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman told an audience at Cherokee Point Elementary School in City Heights she's committed to regaining the trust of the community at a March 26, 2014 town hall meeting.
Racial Data Collected From San Diego Police Traffic Stops Shows Irregularities
Based on figures from January through March, San Diego police pulled over blacks and Hispanics at a higher rate than their percentage of the population. The police chief says more analysis is needed to draw conclusions from the data.

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

San Diego Police Racial Profiling Data
Traffic stop data collected by the San Diego Police Department January through May of 2014.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.
ACLU Analysis Of Police Racial Profiling Data
The American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego offers its own analysis of the San Diego Police Department's traffic stop data.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

The San Diego Police Department has released its first round of racial profiling data since 2001.


Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, policy director for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she sees "dramatic disparities" in the numbers.

Black people make up 5.8 percent of San Diegans old enough to drive, but they accounted for 12.3 percent of police vehicle stops from January through March. Hispanic people also saw a higher percentage of traffic stops than their share of the population, experiencing 30.3 percent of the stops but making up 26.6 percent of the driving population.

Officers were less likely to stop white and Asian residents. The trends were similar across most police divisions.

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman's report doesn't fall on one side or the other of racial profiling claims.

Echoing independent analyses of similar data from 2000 and 2001, Zimmerman writes in her report the department can't draw conclusions based on the figures because it doesn't know exactly who is on the road. It needs a demographic benchmark from which to spot irregularities.


The department settled on using estimates from the San Diego Association of Governments for individuals old enough to drive as its benchmark but offered little analysis because of the data's limitations.

"Although cities often use population figures as an estimated comparison, this is particularly challenging in San Diego, with its proximity to the border, designation as a world tourist destination, major military presence, and other factors not considered in population data," the report says.

Criminal justice experts have long warned that looking at the raw numbers alone is problematic because they don't take into account such variables. But the problem in racial profiling research is the traditionally higher crime rates and policing levels in minority communities.

Columbia Law School criminologist Jeffrey Fagan, who crafted a statistical analysis that more accurately assessed racial profiling in New York City, said police officers are right to advise taking their findings with a grain of salt. But he said he and others have set a precedent for working through the sticky variables.

Dooley-Sammuli said she wants to see a stronger commitment to make sense of the numbers in San Diego.

"Although we very much appreciate and recognize the department for making detailed data available to the public, their own analysis of it — to simply dismiss it as inconclusive — is very disappointing," Dooley-Sammuli said. "There are some serious concerns raised by this data."

An ACLU analysis of the data centers on searches, not traffic stops. It says black drivers were searched three times more often than white drivers; Hispanics were searched twice as many times. And the searches were less likely to result in an arrest for black and Hispanic residents.

"It appears that there are different searching standards for whites than for African Americans and Latinos," Dooley-Sammuli said. "That means people who are not breaking the law, who are not being arrested, are being searched."

The San Diego Police Department did not comment to KPBS on the ACLU's analysis. But Zimmerman said in the report that the inconclusive nature of the data set won't deter the department from releasing numbers in the future.

"The San Diego Police Department is absolutely committed to the fair treatment of all members of our community. Building and sustaining trust is essential to furthering our department's mission and vision," the report says. "To that end, the department will continue to collect data on vehicle stops."

The ACLU urged the City Council to demand information on pedestrian stops as well. And Cal State San Marcos criminal justice researcher Karen Glover said the department shouldn't let up on gathering qualitative data at community meetings.

"My strong sense is that there is another 'data set' that needs to be recognized as valid information for the police to get a sense of what the community is experiencing — the narratives of the community," Glover said.

She said people don't make up that they are "being oppressed on such a large scale."

"It just does not happen," Glover said. "A smart thing for the police to do at this point is to develop a solid multi-tiered response to these racial profiling processes and not merely rely on statistics to understand them."

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