By David M. Greenwald
Late last year the Davis Joint Police Subcommittee issued a report with a number of recommendations, one of which is to determine why racial disparities exist in arrests, recommended charges and police stops. They also recommend shifting non-violent and low-risk service calls to unarmed personnel.
One of the biggest complaints we have heard over the last 15 years from people of color in Davis has been the so-called “driving while Black” stops—these are pretext stops for minor violations where officers will often do investigations to see if they find things like outstanding warrants or contraband in vehicles. This is also known as racial profiling.
Studies consistently show that the people most often getting caught in these kinds of stops are Black and brown people.
California collects such data in a RIPA (Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board) report, and the stop data collected in 2018 and 2019 reveal “patterns of disparities in law enforcement interactions with civilians.” They found that “individuals perceived to be Black were searched at nearly three times the rate of individuals perceived to be White.” In addition, “officers arrested individuals perceived to be Black at nearly 1.6 times the rate as individuals perceived to be White.”
In Davis, the stop data is actually even higher, with Blacks being stopped at a rate five times that of whites.
If Davis wishes to address these kinds of disparities in traffic enforcement, they may want to look at one of the more aggressive policies. The city of Berkeley recently approved a series of policies changes aimed at reducing these disparities.
In a council meeting earlier this week, the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to support a package preventing Berkeley police from being able to stop drivers solely for minor traffic violations that include: equipment violations, expired vehicle registration, or not wearing a seat belt.
The police will only be able to conduct stops for violations “that endanger public safety,” these include excessive speeding, running a red light or stop sign, and driving under the influence.
Those pulled over for a public safety reason can still be cited for low-level offenses.
“While Berkeley has a long history of progressive leadership, we are not immune from issues of systemic racism in policing and our criminal justice system,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín told The Appeal.
There is definitely opposition to the new rules, with the Berkeley Police Association opposing the reforms and issuing a statement that they “will turn officers into filing clerks, gutting their much-needed time on the streets within our community.”
While people can question whether a policy for Berkeley works in Davis, Arreguín convened a working group last year on the issue of fair and impartial policing. A 2018 study by the Center for Policing Equity found that “Black and Hispanic people were more than six times more likely than white people to be stopped by the Berkeley Police Department while driving and more than four times more likely to be stopped while walking.”
Those are remarkably similar numbers to the report by Davis Police released last year that showed huge discrepancies in stop data between whites and people of color. In fact, both Berkeley and Davis has discrepancies that exceed those statewide.
The Appeal notes: “Between 2012 and 2016, Berkeley police also searched Black people at a rate nearly 20 times that of white people. Latinx people were searched more than four times as often as white people.”
Despite these stops and searches which are disproportionately on people of color, “police were significantly less likely to uncover contraband during those searches than during searches of white people, according to the study.”
This is a core finding in almost all racial profiling studies that are based on data analysis. The general belief here is that when white people are searched it is more likely to be based on specific evidence that individuals are engaged in wrongdoing, whereas people of color are generally being searched pretextually and when officers search people simply based on things like race and ethnicity, their “hit” rate is far lower.
The Berkeley policy addresses this disparity which indicates, “Berkeley police must also obtain written consent from motorists before doing a search without a warrant.”
“The working group report cited research that showed requiring written consent reduced the number of warrantless vehicle searches by roughly 75 percent,” the Appeal reports.
In additionally, “Officers are also no longer allowed to search a person who is on probation or parole unless the officer believes there is evidence of imminent danger, or that the person has committed a crime or is about to commit a crime.”
That is certain to trigger some pushback as “California law gives police wide discretion to search all people on probation or parole, and people of color are heavily overrepresented among those under community supervision.”
However, “As of the end of June 2019, nonwhite Californians are nearly twice as likely to be on parole as their white counterparts, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the U.S. Census.”
The Berkeley mayor defended the reforms, saying they would “allow officers to focus on more serious and dangerous crimes—and the people who commit them.”
Should Davis look into similar regulations? That would certainly seem warranted, given the long history of complaints in the Black and brown community about things like pretext stops and racial profiling. Defenders of the police will lament the loss of the ability of officers to conduct investigative stops.
But I think one question they should ask themselves—are these kinds of stops warranted? If they are producing a very low hit rate—which they appear to be statistically—it is kind of like stop and frisk, where you end up generating a huge amount of animosity in communities of color without a huge upside.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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