Records Show Racial Disparities When San Diego Law Enforcement Uses Force
About this project
A new state law that went into effect in 2019 requires California police agencies to release records relating to police shootings and other times they use force during arrests. KPBS has analyzed the records San Diego police agencies have released so far and built a searchable database. Search the records here.
This is the first in a three-part series.
On a January morning in 2013, Raymond Goodlow was riding his bike on East Main Street in El Cajon when he was confronted by Roberto Bonilla, an officer with the El Cajon Police Department.
Goodlow, who is African American, reached for his waistband and ducked behind a parked car, according to an internal department investigation. Bonilla then shot the unarmed 53-year-old six times. Miraculously, Goodlow survived the shooting.
Five years later, in the summer of 2018, a white Valley Center resident named Sky Oliver got into a fight with some neighbors, according to records from an internal San Diego County Sheriff’s Department investigation. As the altercation escalated, Oliver threatened them with a shotgun, a cell phone video shows. He then fled in a stolen truck.
He later returned to the scene and was confronted by seven Sheriff’s deputies, the records show. They ordered him to exit the truck. He refused and at one point reached down into his lap — but the deputies held their fire. When Oliver finally exited the truck, bodycam video shows deputies using beanbag launchers and a police dog to take him down.
Oliver’s most serious injuries were bites from the dog.
In the overall scope of police interactions with the public, instances where police use force are a rarity. And the use of force incidents described above happened under different circumstances, occurred years apart and involved separate police agencies. Yet, they illustrate a familiar but alarming trend in San Diego County.
A KPBS analysis of nearly 130 records from police departments dating back to 2001 shows that when local police use force on a suspect, if the suspect is a person of color they're more likely to shoot. If the suspect is white, police are more likely to use alternative methods of force, including Tasers, beanbags, police dogs or tackling the suspect.
The analysis does not provide a complete picture of how San Diego police departments have used force over the decades because they have only released about a third of the records in their possession. But here is what we know so far:
The records include 62 people of color. Police shot 40 of them, or 65%. Meanwhile, police officers shot 27 of the 65 white people they encountered in these cases, which amounts to 42%.
In the cases where police used another method of force besides shooting, the numbers were reversed. In those cases, police used alternative force on 22 people of color, or 35%, and on 38 white people, or 58%.
Officers feel threatened
This comes as no surprise to Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University and a former police officer.
"I think, quite frankly, that many police officers have a fear of black males," Stinson said. "It's more blatant than implicit bias. They wear it on their sleeves. They may not admit it to you or me, but that's the reality of the situation. Police officers feel threatened by black males."
Stinson made these comments months before the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Floyd’s death has sparked an unprecedented wave of protest in the United States and across the world against police violence on African Americans.
Many police agencies have responded by publicly condemning the Minneapolis officers and vowing reform. The San Diego Police and Sheriff’s departments, along with other local law enforcement, have ordered officers to stop using carotid restraints, which are also known as choke holds, on suspects.
After remaining silent on the issue for years, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer came out last week in support of giving San Diego's Community Review Board on Police Practices subpoena power in use of force cases. And the community review board is finalizing a proposal for a deescalation policy for San Diego police that has been in the works for years.
However, as Stinson and many others note, police have been disproportionately killing African American people for centuries. In the past decade, before George Floyd, there was Michael Brown in 2014, Tamir Rice in 2014, Philando Castile in 2016, Alton Sterling in 2016, and Stephon Clark in 2018, to name just a few.
Agencies fight disclosure law
Clark's case and the public furor that followed played a role in the passage of SB 1421, a state law that requires all California police agencies to release internal records and investigations into incidents in which police fired a gun or used force that resulted in serious injury. The KPBS analysis is based on these records.
Police departments statewide fought against the law requiring them to release these records before it was passed in 2018 and have resisted it since it went into effect in 2019. Some San Diego county departments sued to block the release of past records covered by the law.
KPBS along with other local news outlets fought in court and won the argument that police needed to comply with the law to release records.
Officials from all local police agencies contacted by KPBS declined to comment for this story. Only the Sheriff’s Department responded with a statement, which asked KPBS to not publish the findings.
“The Sheriff's Department would urge you to reconsider your story given that it contains many flaws and fatal errors which can only serve to exacerbate already heightened tensions in our communities,” the statement said.
The Sheriff's Department primary argument for keeping the data under wraps is that it is incomplete—not all of the past police records have been released. KPBS is working with approximately one third of the records.
“While we believe approximately one third of cases so far is enough to merit a preliminary report of a disproportionate number of people of color being shot, KPBS would greatly prefer to have all the records from our local police agencies," said KPBS Director of News & Editorial Strategy Suzanne Marmion. "These records were supposed to be released when the law went into effect nearly a year and a half ago.”
Marmion noted that KPBS is committed to ongoing reporting as more records are released, and has built a searchable database on its website so members of the public can review the records on their own.
Agencies overall still have yet to release two thirds of the records. The Sheriff’s department still has about 90 unreleased records.
The department initially tried to charge KPBS more than $350,000 for redacting and publishing the records. KPBS refused and the department eventually agreed to provide the records without prohibitive cost as the state’s open records law stipulates.
The Sheriff’s statement goes on to say that KPBS should refer to a San Diego District Attorney’s Office study of officer-involved shootings between 1993 and 2017.
That study also showed African American and Latino people are disproportionately shot by police compared to white people. Consider that African American people have historically represented between 4.5% and 6% of San Diego County’s population, yet 17% of people shot by officers during the DA’s study period were African American, according to the report.
Stinson, the criminal justice expert, said he expects the findings that people of color in San Diego County have been shot at disproportionate rates compared to white people to hold true after all the records are released.
"If you just look at the number of fatal police shootings across the country, I think that that's a reasonable conclusion to make," he said.
A long road
San Diego City Councilmember Monica Montgomery said she's encouraged by the recent changes police have made, but she says there's a long way to go.
"It is not enough. We have a lot of ground to make up for," she said. "We can have all the training we want, but the training has to come from the root that we have biases and systems have been built on structural racism."
Montgomery wants to see a de-escalation policy embedded into the police department, more oversight of surveillance technologies and changes to how searches are done.
And, she said, police culture needs to change.
"I get videos often of officers acting in ways that I don't think are acceptable," she said. "We have to make reforms from the outside, but the culture needs to shift from inside, through discipline, training, it has to happen."
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