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San Diego police officers walk towards a group of protesters, June 1, 2020.
Mike Damron
San Diego police officers walk towards a group of protesters, June 1, 2020.

Questions Surround SDPD’s Use Of Force Training

This is the second in a three-part series. Read part one.

Last August, San Diego Police Officer and use of force expert Ken Kries gave a presentation to a small group of residents as part of a community outreach event. He talked about the encounters police have with the public that are peaceful and end without incident, which is the vast majority of the time.

But he also talked about when things get confrontational and people blame police.

"What happened?" he said. "When did the officers become the suspect and the suspect become the victim? When did that happen?"

He made several comments like this during the presentation—his overall point seemed to be that if people didn't resist arrest, police wouldn't have to use force.

"If you just did what I told you to do, we wouldn't have any issues, I wouldn't be wearing anything on my belt," he said. "What's happened to our society? The one I grew up in, my dad told me to do something, I better do it."

VIDEO: San Diego Police Community Event, Aug. 10, 2019

Laila Aziz wasn't at the event, but KPBS showed her the video. The community activist from Southeast San Diego said the attitude Kries displayed that day is a big reason why there is so much mistrust of police in the neighborhoods she serves.

"That put fear in my heart for my sons," she said. "What happened to our society? Does he understand that everyone has not had the same experiences as a white male growing up in the United States?"

Calls for training reform

The Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, an African American man, by Minneapolis police officers sparked protests that have spread across the world and forced police departments to address long standing outrage over police violence in communities of color.

In San Diego County, departments have agreed to stop using chokeholds and are requiring officers take de-escalation training. However, District Attorney Summer Stephan said recently that only 700 officers out of 5,000 countywide have been trained so far.

VIDEO: Questions Surround SDPD’s Use Of Force Training

San Diego Police Department officials did not respond to a KPBS request for additional comment on their training protocols in light of the George Floyd killing and the calls for reform that have followed.

Last week, the city's Community Review Board on Police Practices had an emergency meeting to push the department to create a de-escalation policy. On Wednesday, the department announced it is "developing new de-escalation policies based on best practices to reduce the number of use-of-force incidents."

Aziz, along with other community advocates, said these new initiatives should be seen as just the beginning of a far deeper reform effort. She wants departments to completely overhaul how officers are hired and trained. So far, that isn't on the table.

Sgt. Michael Belz, in-service training manager at the San Diego Police Academy, explained the department's use of force policy last August.

VIDEO: Use of Force Demonstration, Aug. 1, 2019

"If they are punching at me or striking me or kicking me I may respond in similar fashion or if they're assaulting I may even go up to the level of baton to overcome that resistance," he said. "But once they comply with the force that was used then they'll be placed in custody."

KPBS asked what limits police officers might have on how much force they can use.

"So we don't normally put limits on the type of force or the number of times someone will be struck because it's all based on the suspect's resistance," Belz said.

Aziz, the community activist, said this attitude is "part of the kind of cowboy kind of thing going on instead of looking at all humans as the same."

She said she regularly sees officers jumping out of cars and yelling at people in her community. She wants departments to confront the fact that officers may feel more threatened by people of color and therefore more likely to escalate the force they use against them.

San Diego Police officers listen to an instructor at the SDPD Training Academy, August 12, 2019.
Andi Dukleth
San Diego Police officers listen to an instructor at the SDPD Training Academy, August 12, 2019.

‘Warrior mentality’

A KPBS analysis of nearly 130 use of force 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.

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Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University and former police officer, has studied policing across the country and said officers have to change how they interact with people on the street.

"Officers become very threatened when they sense that somebody is not following their lawful commands,” Stinson said. “If simply the police officers would take the opportunity to step back and explain why they're taking actions, why they're doing what they're doing and why it's necessary to do so, I think you'll find that people generally are more compliant.”

Stinson added that the attitude shown by Kries and Belz with the San Diego Police Department is common.

"For many years now and many police departments across the country, we've had a warrior mentality,” he said. “And that warrior mentality really becomes a precision type military organization or quasi-military organization where we forget that one of the roles of the police is to act as guardians to care for people."

VIDEO: San Diego Police Community Event, Aug. 10, 2019 - Part 2

The proliferation in recent decades of bodycam and cell phone videos frustrates Kries and other officers because they represent a tiny fraction of their day-to-day actions. Kries addressed this at the community event.

"All you're going to see is about 100 videos this year of an officer on top of somebody hitting somebody and then they play that like we do it 99% of the time," he said.

The result, he said, is a warped perception by many people in the community regarding the realities officers face on the street.

"Case law says you can not judge an officer from the confines of your sofa looking at a video and telling me how to do my job," Kries said. "You're not facing that stress in that split second. It's at the moment that I use force, it's my perception, no one else, not the jury's, it's mine and mine alone."

Members of the community listen to a police officer explain how different equipment is used by the SDPD Swat team during the SDPD Community Outreach Day, August 10, 2019.
Andi Dukleth
Members of the community listen to a police officer explain how different equipment is used by the SDPD Swat team during the SDPD Community Outreach Day, August 10, 2019.

Stinson, the criminal justice professor, said that's the wrong interpretation of case law.

"The implications are absolutely terrifying, because then if an officer can use whatever force they believe is appropriate without regard for what a reasonable officer in that situation would have done, all their training goes out the window," he said.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber has sponsored many bills aimed at police reform, including one that restricted the use of deadly force, resulting in departments adopting de-escalation training. But she said that training this is a small part of a large culture shift that is needed.

"We have to work hard to get rid of those causing problems," Weber said. "If we can eliminate those one or two officers, we can change our perception of behavior. Then if we change recruitment to bring in different officers from the beginning and give them the support they need, maybe change will not take as long as you think."

KPBS video journalist Andi Dukleth contributed to this report.

Questions Surround SDPD’s Use Of Force Training
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

As a member of the investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.
What is a story that is going on in San Diego that people should know about?