Black Youth More Likely To Be Detained By San Diego Unified Police
Laila Williams graduated last month from San Diego High School where she was the president of the Black Student Union. She spent her high school career fostering conversations among teachers and students about racism on the campus.
She saw her work as progress. But she also remembers what she considers a heavy police presence at her school and the persistent feeling that campus police officers targeted Black students.
“When you come onto campus, you want it to be a safe place. You want to know your staff has trust and faith in you,” Williams said. “But when you’re coming onto campus and the first thing you see is a police officer glaring at you, you’re just like, ‘Well dang, does my school even trust me?’”
The San Diego Unified School District is one of a relatively small number of districts statewide that has its own police department, with 37 sworn officers patrolling its campuses and their surrounding areas.
Records of arrests and detentions made by district police appear to support Williams’ lived experience. Between 2007 and 2019, the district’s police department made 545 arrests and detentions at San Diego High School, the highest number among all district schools, according to a KPBS analysis of district arrest data maintained by the San Diego Police Department.
Districtwide, the analysis of 9,488 arrest and detention records shows that depending on the school year, Black youth were more than four times as likely to be arrested or detained than their white peers.
Also, the data show, Black youth are more likely than white youth to be arrested for a “felony” crime.
Meanwhile, the data show that white youth who come in contact with campus police were increasingly more likely than Black youth to be detained for being “mentally ill.” In these cases, which fall under the state Welfare and Institutions Code 5150, youth were detained and brought by police to a psychiatric facility.
More specifically, the analysis found the following:
– On average, Black students make up 8% of the district’s enrollment, but 21% of youth arrested or detained by campus police were Black. White students make up 24% of the district’s enrollment, but 16% of youth arrested or detained were white.
– The disparity is greater in some school years than others. For example, in 2014-15 a Black youth was 4.4 times as likely to be arrested or detained than a white youth. But in 2016-17, a Black youth was 1.8 times as likely.
– Among all arrests and detentions of Black youth, 31% percent were for “felony” crimes. Among arrests and detentions of white youth, 22% percent were for “felony” crimes.
– The number of detentions related to mental illness rose sharply in the 12-year period, along with an increasing racial gap. In 2007-2008, there were 18 youth detained for being "mentally ill" of which six were Black and three were white. In 2018-2019 that number jumped to 113. Of those youth, 41 were white and 18 were Black.
Historically, Latino youth have also been disproportionately arrested or detained by campus police compared to white youth, but the disparities have narrowed considerably in recent years. In 2007-08, a Latino youth was more than twice as likely to be arrested or detained than a white youth. But by 2015-16 the ratio was nearly even.
Arrests and detentions involving youth of Asian ethnicities were more difficult to analyze due to inconsistencies in the data. In some cases students are identified as “Asian” and other times by their specific ethnicity.
Roddrick Colvin, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University, said the racial disparities in the San Diego Unified data mirror those in nearly all police departments nationwide.
“Just as we see in the broader society, these disparities in the criminal processing system vary by race,” Colvin said. “It shouldn’t surprise us that we see these same biases in the microcosm of the school district.”
San Diego Unified Police Chief Michael Marquez pointed to a dramatic drop in overall arrests and detentions during the past decade as evidence that district police are working hard to decriminalize student behavior and stop the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.
Furthermore, Marquez said that 80% to 90% of youth arrested by police are offered diversion programs in lieu of being prosecuted. Also, the district has spent millions in recent years on restorative justice and other interventions meant to keep students out of the criminal justice system.
“The last thing I want to do is be a part of the school to prison pipeline,” Marquez said. “My goal is to completely disrupt that. Our kids should get the best service that we can provide them.”
The overall arrest and detention numbers have indeed dropped by more than half during the period covered by the SDPD data analyzed by KPBS. During the 2007-08 school year, campus police made 1,240 arrests and detentions; during the 2018-19 school year, the number dropped to 502, the analysis showed.
However, the racial disparities remain even with the drop in overall arrests. In 2018-19, a Black student was still 3.2 times as likely to be arrested as a white student.
These facts, along with the nationwide push for racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, have led Williams and other students to call for the defunding of San Diego Unified police. They organized a protest scheduled for Thursday.
“Our country was built on institutionalized racism, it was built to oppress people who weren’t white,” said Makhfrya Abdullahi, a recent graduate of Morse High School. “In terms of our educational system it was never meant for us. For those changes to occur we need to defund the police and start from a new point.”
The police department’s budget is currently about $9 million, less than 1% of the district’s overall budget.
San Diego Unified Board Vice President Richard Barrera said he supports the spirit of the student activism and agrees that policing needs to change in the district. But he does not want to see the department defunded.
He said campus police play a pivotal role in ensuring student safety in cases of human trafficking, school shootings and unsafe home environments. He said the district will not make any final decisions without a robust survey of its community members.
“I can guarantee that the process we go through in our district is not a process that’s intended to delay change,” Barrera said. “It’s a process that’s intended to make sure the change is the right change.”
Colvin, the SDSU professor, said the district must be willing to spend if the change involves a significant shift to more mental health counseling.
“It’s probably way more expensive than what the school district is spending on policing in terms of dollars and getting the counselors and facilitators and training them,” Colvin said. “It’s also gonna take resources in terms of time and space.”
If the district leadership opts for a middle ground between the status quo and completely defunding the police, both Colvin and the students say the administration must listen to students and learn about their relationships with officers.
“The police officers don’t really understand that sometimes students act up, but that’s not who they really are,” Williams said. “They put that label on that student and continually see them in that light.”