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Police caution tape is set up after San Diego Police officers shot a man on Skyline Drive, Aug. 25, 2012.
San Diego Police Department
Police caution tape is set up after San Diego Police officers shot a man on Skyline Drive, Aug. 25, 2012.

San Diego Police use force most often in neighborhoods south of Interstate 8

In February 2014, San Diego Police Department Officer Kristel Miranda was serving a search warrant at Henry Luis Gonzales’s home. She saw him pull out what she thought was a shiny object in his waistband, so she shot him three times. The object turned out to be rings on his fingers.

In May 2016, Thongsoune Vilaysane was driving away from a house “known to be frequented by the Oriental Killer Boys gang,” according to an internal police report. San Diego police officers chased Vilaysane in their squad car, then jumped out and shot him as he was driving. He was later pronounced dead.

That same month, members of the department’s gang unit were doing “surveillance at a known gang house on Skyline Drive” and started following a car in an unmarked patrol vehicle, according to the internal report. Someone in the car started shooting at the police. The driver ultimately jumped out of the car and started running. Police shot at him but missed.

Each of these shootings happened in the 92114 ZIP code in Encanto. That Southeast San Diego neighborhood had seven police shootings over six years—among the most of any ZIP code in the city, according to a KPBS analysis of 148 San Diego Police Department cases between 2005 and 2019 in which officers used force that led to significant injuries or death.

San Diego Police use force most often in neighborhoods south of Interstate 8

Speaker 1: (00:00)

Uh, look at records for where police shootings have occurred in the city of San Diego reveals a vast disparity, far more happened south of interstate eight in communities where more black and Latino people live KPBS. Investigative reporter, Claire Traeger gives us a closer look at a warning. The story contains graphic descriptions

Speaker 2: (00:21)

In February, 2014, San Diego police department, officer Christelle Miranda was serving a search warrant at Henry Louis Gonzales's home. She saw him pull out what she thought was a shiny object in his waistband. So she shot him three times. It turned out to be rings on his fingers.

Speaker 3: (00:42)

That's all I can tell him. The white jacket for the driver

Speaker 2: (00:48)

In May, 2016, Tom [inaudible] was driving away from a house. Police said was used by the Oriental killer boys gang San Diego police officers chased him in their squad car and then shot and killed him that same month. Members of the department's gang unit were doing surveillance at a known gang house on skyline drive and ended up in a shootout with the suspects

Speaker 2: (01:17)

This time no one was killed. These were among seven police shootings over six years, that happened in the nine to 1, 1, 4 zip code in Encanto, the cluster of cases, and in Canto fits into a larger city-wide trend. That's according to a KPBS analysis of almost 150 San Diego police department cases in which officers used force that led to significant injuries or death. Almost 70% of the use of force incidents occurred south of interstate eight and almost a quarter were in Southeast San Diego. In addition to Encanto the zip codes with the greatest number of shootings were Logan Heights downtown in city Heights.

Speaker 4: (02:03)

The police tend to react differently than they do, um, in communities that are north of the eight or into communities that have less black and brown residents

Speaker 2: (02:12)

Call it Alexander with pillars of the community. Isn't surprised by the numbers,

Speaker 4: (02:17)

They were to treat people in LA Jolla, or if they were to treat people in Claremont or Coronado the same way, there would be immediate repercussions to their actions.

Speaker 2: (02:26)

Lee shootings almost never happen in San Diego counties, mostly white and wealthy enclaves. Consider that in a 15 year period, the combined total in LA Jolla, Poway and Rancho Santa Fe was just three that's, fewer than half. As many as there were in Encanto alone. According to the KPBS analysis officials from the San Diego police department declined an interview request for this story in the past chief David [inaudible] has said there are more rests in communities of color, but that doesn't mean it's discrimination

Speaker 5: (03:03)

Are going to exist because everything is society doesn't happen along the demographic line. And until that happens, you're going to have this,

Speaker 2: (03:12)

But Alexander says higher crime statistics in the zip codes. Don't justify more use of force.

Speaker 4: (03:19)

The idea that there's more crime in Southeast San Diego than there is in LA Jolla or other communities is, is, is a myth what you have in, in, in Southeast San Diego. And, and those communities are a larger police presence looking for crime.

Speaker 2: (03:34)

The fear factor among police officers must also be taken into account. So it says Ann Rios, a defense attorney.

Speaker 6: (03:41)

How do police view people in these areas? Do they view them as dangerous? Do they already pre label them as gang members as violent? Are they

Speaker 2: (03:54)

In the past two years, San Diego county district attorney summer Stephan rolled out a deescalation training program that includes implicit bias training. She says it's vital.

Speaker 7: (04:06)

Yes. Against a group is also coloring your ability to make intelligent decisions. Okay.

Speaker 2: (04:13)

For activists like Rios, there has already been more damage to San Diego's. South of eight communities than one deescalation training program can fix.

Speaker 6: (04:24)

This is a public health crisis that is happening to people. And in areas that I love and living

Speaker 1: (04:32)

Joining me is KPBS investigative reporter, Claire Traeger, ser, and Claire. Welcome.

Speaker 2: (04:37)

Thank you.

Speaker 1: (04:38)

What's the SDPD criteria for firing a weapon? What do they have to see or suspect to justify the use of deadly force?

Speaker 2: (04:48)

Well, in these policies and procedures, you know, they, they write them pretty vaguely because you can never really predict, uh, every single incident and what the circumstances will be and what the outcomes will be. But generally the idea is that the officer needs to believe that the suspect is, um, you know, about to cause immediate harm to the officer or a fellow officer or, uh, another witness or victim nearby.

Speaker 1: (05:18)

What do advocates say are the fears and attitudes that may contribute to police being more likely to shoot suspects in San Diego's black and brown neighborhoods?

Speaker 2: (05:28)

Well, I mean, I think first starters there is they say that there's racism. Um, you know, they say that pretty, pretty strongly that, uh, there's maybe an innate fear of, um, black and brown people. And so when police confront someone who is a person of color, they're more on guard on edge, you know, believe that that person is more of a risk. And so then they're more likely to shoot. Um, beyond that, I think there's just the idea of over in, in neighborhoods when there's more police, there are going to be more interactions with people. And when there are more interactions with people, um, there's a higher likelihood that it will end with, with a shooting or a use of force causing severe injury. And then there's also the association with gangs. As I said in the story, a lot of the records will say, you know, we know this person is a gang member or is associated with gangs. And therefore the officer feels that person is, is more of a risk of being armed or just being dangerous. But we also know from lots of other stories that it's very easy to be a documented gang member. It doesn't actually mean that you're necessarily in a gang. You may just, you know, live in a neighborhood or have family members who are in a gang. Um, things like that, one

Speaker 1: (06:52)

Push back to a comment made in your story. It isn't really just a myth that there's more violent crime in some areas of the city than others. Don't crime statistics show that

Speaker 2: (07:04)

Yes they do. But the, the areas that have the highest rates of violent crime are not really the areas that we see more police shootings. When you look it's east village, um, Kearny Mesa mission valley kind of have the highest rates of violent crime and in Canto or these other areas in Southeast San Diego that we're talking about don't even make, make the top 10. Um, and I think there's another point that is again, when there's more police, there's more likely to be more crime found just because police are there looking for crime, I believe, um, call it Alexander from pillars of the community said if police were stopping every teenager in LA Jolla and searching their car, they might, you know, find more drugs. And so then there might be more crime, but they don't do that because there's just fewer police in that area.

Speaker 1: (08:01)

Tell us more about the deescalation training that law enforcement in San Diego is now getting.

Speaker 2: (08:07)

Yeah. So I'm going to actually have a followup story in a few weeks. That goes way more into detail. Um, so stay tuned for that. But, uh, the district attorney, um, rolled out this deescalation training program and every local law enforcement agency has gone through it. Um, except the San Diego Sheriff's department, they're doing their own training, but they're using some of the DAS, uh, curriculum, but, um, a lot of their deputies have not actually gone through that training yet. Um, but I think that the point that will be made in that story is it's really too soon to know whether that training is having an impact. Um, officers are only, you know, recently going through it and our records go back through 2005 up through 2019. Um, but you'll hear a district attorney summer stuff and talk about what she will be looking for to, um, to see that this training is working. Um, as, as police have more encounters with people in the future.

Speaker 1: (09:09)

Now, the people you interviewed in your story don't seem to have much confidence in the new training offered to police. What would they like to see happen to change the situation between police and the community?

Speaker 2: (09:21)

Well, it varies. I mean, there are activists who, you know, want the entire police department dissolved, um, and an entirely new force set up, um, under, you know, a different system, a different people. There's also just more of a wish for acknowledgement that there is maybe racism, um, in the department, not just in the police department, but in lots of, uh, government systems. And so, um, you know, tackling that and then, and then going from there about how do we address that

Speaker 1: (09:54)

Part, two of your report is coming up tomorrow. Can you give us a preview?

Speaker 2: (09:58)

Yeah. So this will look specifically at, um, instances where police have shot at people in moving vehicles, uh, cars or trucks. It's just really not safe because it's hard to control what happens. The bullets can ricochet. And even if you hit the driver, uh, that driver can then crash the car. Um, so not the best idea. Um, but it still happens pretty frequently.

Speaker 1: (10:22)

I've been speaking with KPBS, investigative reporter, Clare Traeger, sir. Claire. Thank you very much.

Speaker 2: (10:28)

Thank you.

Speaker 8: (10:30)

[inaudible].

A map showing the location of each San Diego Police Department shooting and use of force incident that caused great bodily injury from 2005 to 2019.

The cluster of cases in Encanto fits into a larger citywide trend. Nearly 69% of the use-of-force incidents occurred south of Interstate 8, and 25% were in Southeast San Diego. In addition to Encanto, the ZIP codes with the greatest number of shootings were Logan Heights, Downtown and City Heights.

Documents relating to police internal affairs probes into these cases were made public under SB 1421, a law passed in 2018 that mandated more police transparency regarding their investigations of use-of-force incidents.

While the San Diego Police Department claims it has released all past records that aren’t part of ongoing lawsuits, there may be records pertaining to three additional incidents the department owes through the end of 2019. KPBS is working to obtain the missing records and will update its reporting if those records are released.

Not surprising

Local community activists weren’t surprised with KPBS’ findings.

“Anybody who lives in those communities knows that the police tend to react differently than they do in communities that are north of the 8, communities that have less Black and Brown residents and communities that actually are wealthier,” said Khalid Alexander of the nonprofit advocacy organization Pillars of the Community.

“I think really the underlying issue is because the police can get away with it,” he added. “If they were to treat people in La Jolla or if they were to treat people in Clairemont or Coronado the same way, there would be immediate repercussions to their actions.”

Police shootings almost never happen in San Diego County’s mostly white and wealthy enclaves. Consider that in the 15-year period from 2005 through 2019, the combined total in ZIP codes in La Jolla, Poway and Rancho Santa Fe was three, according to the KPBS analysis. That’s fewer than half as many as there were in Encanto alone.

Rings worn by Henry Luis Gonzales when he was shot by San Diego Police Officer Kristel Miranda, Feb. 27, 2014. Miranda said she mistook the rings for a gun.
San Diego Police Department
Rings worn by Henry Luis Gonzales when he was shot by San Diego Police Officer Kristel Miranda, Feb. 27, 2014. Miranda said she mistook the rings for a gun.

Officials from the San Diego Police Department declined an interview request for this story. In the past, Chief David Nisleit has said there are more arrests in communities of color, but that doesn’t mean it’s discrimination.

“Disparities are going to exist because everything in society doesn't happen along the demographic line. And until that happens, you're going to have disparities,” he said. “And that's why it's important to understand that disparity does not equal discrimination.”

San Diego Police use force most often in neighborhoods south of Interstate 8

But Alexander said higher crime statistics in these ZIP codes don’t justify more use of force.

“The idea that there's more crime in Southeast San Diego than there is in La Jolla or other communities is a myth,” he said. “What you have in Southeast San Diego and those communities are a larger police presence looking for crime.”

Fear factor

Anne Rios, an attorney and executive director of Uprise Theatre, a nonprofit that educates people on their legal rights, said the officers' own fears must be taken into account.

“If one area has more interaction with police, it makes sense that it would also be more likely to have interactions that end in shootings,” Rios said. “But we also need to be looking at how police view people, do they view them as dangerous, label them as gang members, are they scared?”

Bullet casings are marked on Skyline Drive after police officers shot a man, Aug. 25, 2012.
San Diego Police Department
Bullet casings are marked on Skyline Drive after police officers shot a man, Aug. 25, 2012.

In Encanto, five of the seven people shot by police were described as known gang members or associated with gangs before they were shot, according to the police records.

Police departments have increasingly put a greater emphasis on training their officers in de-escalation techniques and recognizing implicit bias. San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan rolled out a de-escalation training program that includes implicit bias training. Every local law enforcement agency has adopted the program except the Sheriff’s Department, which is conducting its own training.

“We don't believe that you can have a good de-escalation program without an equity lens for officers, a lens of fairness and equality,” Stephan said. “The way that this was taught is...talking about that bias actually makes officers unsafe because they are judging situations by a lens and stereotypes that could end up with injury to the person and to the officer.”

"Bias actually makes officers unsafe because they are judging situations by a lens and stereotypes that could end up with injury to the person and to the officer.”
District Attorney Summer Stephan

For example, Stephan said, an officer might feel more comfortable interacting with someone who looks like him.

“That is also dangerous because you're now not checking to make sure, do they have a weapon, what's their access, what are they doing?” she said. “And then bias against a group is also coloring your ability to make intelligent decisions.”

But for activists like Rios, there has already been more damage to communities like Logan Heights and Encanto than one de-escalation training program can fix.

“This is a public health crisis,” she said. “In talking to people in areas that I love and live in, it’s incredibly scary, folks are scared of police, scared of living in their own neighborhood.”

A KPBS analysis of police records shows more than two-thirds of use-of-force incidents over a 15-year period occurred in ZIP codes south of Interstate 8. And nearly a quarter were concentrated in just a handful of neighborhoods in the southeast part of the city. Meanwhile, as the Biden administration plans a re-start of the controversial Remain in Mexico program that sends asylum seekers back across the border, immigrant advocates are split over whether or not to help. Plus, KPBS speaks with Cynthia Paes now that she’s been officially confirmed as the new San Diego registrar of voters.

The California Reporting Project contributed to this story.

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.