Commentary: Davis Needs to Go Further on Police Reform – They Should Follow the Models

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Photo Courtesy Don Sherman

By David M. Greenwald

Davis, CA – Recently the city council has been pushed to do more and make firmer commitments on police reform.  I strongly agree with that sentiment.

First of all, however, I would like to pay a little homage to what the council has done.  Back in 2006—we are coming up on the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Vanguard in two weeks—the council actually shut down the Human Relations Commission due to their advocacy for civilian review.

This council has not only installed the PAC (Police Accountability Commission) but has gone much further in their commitment to redefining what public safety should look like in what is now a post-George Floyd world.

Look, we have to recognize that we have come a long way.  But in 2006, while the biggest single issue was the overblown arrest and prosecution of 16-year-old Halema Buzayan (that case still boggles the imagination that they would arrest someone for, at most, a minor fender bender, much less a child), the broader complaint was racial profiling.

To this day, I have talked to many UC Davis graduates who are Black and brown and most of them have a story about being stopped by the police for what we refer to as a driving while Black or brown incident.

This to me is the biggest hole in the council’s approach to policing—there is no clear proposal to address police stops.

Like a lot of the activists, I would like to see the city of Davis go further than they have on reimagining policing.  To me one of the big issues that we have not done enough on is address racial policing, police stops, pretextual stops.

The city and police chief like to point out that we have a relatively low complaint rate.  We also have a relatively low use of force rate.  But one area where the city police has traditionally done poorly has been on police stops.

For years, that has been the biggest complaint that you hear, bar none.  And the problem is that those stops really do not show up on citizen complaint forms. 

So if you are simply looking at complaints—which you should by the way, racial profiling is not going to really dent that list.

Why?  It’s perfectly legal.  It’s hard to prove in an isolated incident.

The police stopped me because my registration was expired.

The problem is that they are not really interested in enforcing registration laws, they are using that to check—does this person have a warrant, will they consent to a search, are there drugs or other contraband in the vehicle?

So, they stop someone for a minor vehicle infraction and then use that as a pretext to investigate further.  

One problem is that the hit rate for these types of stops is extraordinarily low.  The other problem is that they are heavily disproportionately pulling over Black and brown people—the vast  majority of whom are completely innocent.

As I will cite shortly, there really is little of value here.  The research shows the hit rates are low and the practice has no noticeable effect on crime.  It just undermines the trust in policing by communities of color.

Davis has the ability to stop this practice tomorrow.  It will just take some courage on the part of the council to make it happen.

The problem here is that the police are using a very, very wide net.

As the San Francisco Public Defender’s office noted in their policy memo: “Almost any driver or pedestrian, if observed for long enough, will commit a low-level traffic infraction…  A traffic stop, then, can become a way for officers to investigate the driver or passengers for evidence of otherwise not obvious criminal activity.”

And yet, stops like these, pretextual stops, are completely legal and “have been sanctioned for more than 25 years” by the 1996 Supreme Court decision, Whren v. United States.

But research has shown that these kinds of traffic stops, while harassing and disruptive to communities of color, are largely ineffective at catching actual crimes and can lead to escalation, violence and even police killings.

Sandra Bland, Daunte Wright, Rayshard Wright, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, and Sam Dubose, to name but a few, all started as pretextual stops.

It would be one thing if these worked.  

Frank Baumgartner, who studies policing and policing tactics, labels traffic stops of this sort a “needle-in-the-haystack strategy” to detect crime and thereby becomes “an incredible waste of effort.”

A recent study out of Nashville reached a similar conclusion.  That report found that, while a disproportionate number of Black people were pulled over in Nashville on proactive traffic stops, such stops rarely led to an arrest or the recovery of drugs and weapons.

“For every 1,000 non-moving violation stops, just over two percent (or 21) resulted in an arrest, or the recovery of drugs or other contraband. An additional 61 stops (6.1 percent) resulted in a misdemeanor citation for a non-drug related charge,” according to the report by SCPL (Stanford Computational Policy Lab).

The report concluded that, because there aren’t any benefits, all social costs should be avoided altogether.

Davis is just as bad here, if not worse, than other areas.

The 2019 RIPA (Racial and Identity Profiling Act) data shows: “Black people are arrested at a rate 5.9 times more, and Hispanic people 1.5 times more, than their population share; when considering only Davis residents, Black people are arrested at 5.0 times and Hispanic people 1.4 times their population share.”

Statewide, the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board 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.”

The same research however finds that Black vehicles that are searched are actually less likely to find contraband than white vehicles that are search—the presumption seeming to be that they are searching white people based more on objective factors than on pretext or prejudicial guesswork.

You can read our article yesterday— here —San Francisco proposes eliminating quality of car stops, enforcement of jaywalking and other stops for minor infractions without evidence of other obvious criminal activity and finally, ending ending “baseless searches during traffic stops.”

Baseless searches are “essentially random searches (at best) and are only marginally effective when compared to other readily available and less-intrusive investigative tactics.”

This is similar to what Berkeley passed back in February.

Empirical data shows that “consent searches are largely ineffective.”  They also “disproportionately impact Black and Brown people. In 2019 before much of the City was shuttered because of the pandemic, SFPD officers conducted more baseless searches on Black and Brown people than on whites.”

While I am fine with Davis going to a CRISES-now model and shifting homeless services away from the police, to me the biggest problem is still pretextual stops—why not address those now as well?

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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16 thoughts on “Commentary: Davis Needs to Go Further on Police Reform – They Should Follow the Models”

  1. Alan Miller

    I have talked to many UC Davis graduates who are Black and brown and most of them have a story about being stopped by the police for what we refer to as a driving while Black or brown incident.

    I have a couple of great ‘driving while white appearing’ incident stories from Davis if you ever want a change of pace.

    The other problem is that they are heavily disproportionately pulling over Black and brown people – the vast vast majority of whom are completely innocent.

    I believe the science shows it’s only vast, not vast vast.

    Davis has the ability to stop this practice tomorrow.  It will just take some courage on the part of the council to make it happen.

    How, then, will we enforce vehicle registration?  The vehicle registration squad?   Tattling on our neighbors? . . . (but only in proportion to their racial ratios of course)

    Y’know what I want, what I really really want . . . a front-driver-side-window-tinted-illegally-almost-opaque-dark squad.  This trend of opaque and illegal tinting makes it impossible to interact by eye contact with another driving at an intersection, especially bike-car.  I’d tell you if I believed if this was a trend that was more prevalent (disproportionate) to persons of color, but I can’t see the drivers/culprits.  Hey, that means the cops can’t either – so it should be perfectly cool for cops to cite people with dark tinting!  Yay!

    1. Don Shor

      I have a couple of great ‘driving while white appearing’ incident stories from Davis if you ever want a change of pace.

      Do you understand that when you post glib comments like this, you appear to be trivializing the real and disproportionate experiences of others?

      How, then, will we enforce vehicle registration?

      The same way they enforce tolls on bridges in the Bay Area. An officer encounter is not necessary for registration issues.

      1. Ron Oertel

        The same way they enforce tolls on bridges in the Bay Area. An officer encounter is not necessary for registration issues.

        Interesting idea, but what if those driving around with expired registration also ignore the “fine” that they receive in the mail?  Given that they’re already ignoring the requirement in the first place.

        Regardless, the Highway Patrol (which receives funds from vehicle registration) is going to pull them over, if they see them on the freeway.

        Are there any other reasons that vehicle registration is required (e.g., passing smog inspections, ensuring that the owner maintains insurance, keeping track of ownership and responsibility for the vehicle, etc.)?

        As I said in jest the other day, the easiest way to “reduce crime” (including lower-level infractions) is to essentially stop enforcing the law (or better yet – eliminate the law). The resulting statistics will “look great” that way.

      2. Ron Oertel

        As far as this being a “racial issue”, registration requirements also apply to anyone who is “white”.  The Highway Patrol certainly sees it that way.

        As do the “extra fines” for letting it lapse, tickets for parking on public streets, etc.

        Owning a vehicle entails a lot of responsibility, regardless of skin color.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          The issue being who gets pulled over and why.  The data on pretextual stops suggests that the primary aim of those stops is not to enforce vehicle registrations.

        2. Ron Oertel

          The issue being who gets pulled over and why.  The data on pretextual stops suggests that the primary aim of those stops is not to enforce vehicle registrations.

          If you’re driving around with expired registration (or even parking on the street), you will have a problem – regardless of skin color.

          I’m sure that bias in policing exists, but I frankly don’t trust the statistics regarding the difference.  Nor do I always trust anecdotal accounts for the “reason” that someone is pulled over.

          For that matter, young people and males probably get pulled over more often.  Bias may exist regarding the type of vehicle (and even the “color” of the car itself), according to what I’ve read for decades.

      3. Keith Olsen

        Do you understand that when you post glib comments like this, you appear to be trivializing the real and disproportionate experiences of others?

        How do you know his or anyone else’s experiences that they care to share are trivial and disproportionate?

  2. David Greenwald Post author

    This is from a 14 year study of vehicle stops in North Carolina…

    Significant findings from Shoub’s and her colleagues’ analysis of the North Carolina dataset include:

    • Blacks were 63 percent more likely to be stopped even though, as a whole, they drive 16 percent less. Taking into account less time on the road, blacks were about 95 percent more likely to be stopped.
    • Blacks were 115 percent more likely than whites to be searched in a traffic stop (5.05 percent for blacks, 2.35 percent for whites).
    • Contraband was more likely to be found in searches of white drivers.

    “So, black drivers were stopped disproportionately more than white drivers compared to the local population and were at least twice as likely to be searched, but they were slightly less likely to get a ticket,” Shoub says. “That correlates with the idea that black drivers were stopped on the pretext of having done something wrong, and when the officer doesn’t see in the car what he thought he might, he tells them to go on their way.”

    You can say, well that’s North Carolina, but they have similar data in Davis!

    1. Ron Oertel

      One can arrive at any number of conclusions regarding the reasons for these reported discrepancies. There may be more than one reason, as well.

      I’m surprised that they even keep track of the skin color of those that they pull over. Are you sure that they do so, accurately – in North Carolina or anywhere else?

      Even when they don’t get a ticket, for example?

      1. David Greenwald Post author

         The legislature there mandated the collection of routine traffic stop statistics — including race, age and gender of drivers and outcomes of the stops — in an effort to confirm or refute widespread opinion about disparate treatment of drivers based on race.“

        California by the way for RIPA requires: “ Observed age, race, gender, disabilities ”

        1. Ron Oertel

          So, for each traffic stop, the police in North Carolina create a report regarding the race, age, and gender of those that they pull over – regardless of whether or not they get a ticket?

          Really?  How long have they been doing so? And if so, what if it’s not entirely clear to them – based upon observation? (I realize that age and gender can be determined from driver’s licenses, as long as they’re not “non-binary” I guess.)

          In any case, it would be interesting to know more about how this is reported.

          — in an effort to confirm or refute widespread opinion about disparate treatment of drivers based on race.“

          The results would not necessarily confirm OR refute “disparate treatment”.  At best, the results could indicate that as a possibility, and/or one of the reasons.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            https://post.ca.gov/Racial-and-Identity-Profiling-Act

            On the other issue – for decades Black and brown people have believed they have been racially profiled. We lacked data to show it. Now we have data that shows that in fact the perception of disproportionate policing was accurate. I do think your comment misses the point – disparate impact is outcome based not input based. The reason they created the standard in the first place was that policies and practices do not have to have discriminatory intent to create disparate impact.

        2. Ron Oertel

          On the other issue – for decades Black and brown people have believed they have been racially profiled.

          Do “all” Black and brown people believe this?  Do you have data which shows that (and how “racial profiling” is actually defined)?

          And again, are you claiming that the skin color of all those pulled over in North Carolina is reported (accurately, at that)?  Regardless of whether or not they get a ticket?

          Also, why is “Black” capitalized, while “brown” isn’t?  Is this some kind of new, nonsense rule?  The latest in the ever-changing language of the “Enlightened”?

          For what it’s worth, I do believe that racial (and other forms of bias) occurs regarding police stops, but that there isn’t direction, linear correlation between the data and beliefs.

          And given how closely this is being “watched” in places like California, I would think that some police might actually be becoming paranoid themselves, regarding their duties to enforce the law. Have you asked any about that? (You might have seen reports about police quitting their respective jobs, regarding this.)

          I do think your comment misses the point – disparate impact is outcome based not input based.

          Again, that’s a conclusion, not necessarily a fact.  Or, at least not the “entire” fact.

          The reason they created the standard in the first place was that policies and practices do not have to have discriminatory intent to create disparate impact.

          I said nothing about “intent”.

          Here’s a question for you:  Are there statistics which show the percentage of “Black” (leaving out “brown”, for the moment) people who don’t register, smog, or insure their cars?  Compared to other “races”?

          Regarding the apparent fact that Black people are pulled-over more often, might lack of car registration be one of the reasons?  And/or, might they (or their vehicle) sometimes more-closely match the description of a reported/repeated crime suspect, in a given area (compared to other drivers/vehicles)?

          We could probably discuss this over the course of the next year, without arriving at a direct, linear conclusion regarding causes.

           

        3. Ron Oertel

          Here is what your reference states:

          When asked about incidents just in the past year, 3 in 10 (30%) Black Americans say they personally experienced unfair treatment by police during traffic stops and other encounters. That is nearly three times the share of Hispanic Americans (11%) and ten times the share of White Americans (3%) who report such unfair treatment by police in the past year.

          30% is far from “all”.

          Amid nationwide protests against racial bias in law enforcement and beyond, a new KFF poll finds that the vast majority (71%) of Black Americans say they’ve experienced some form of racial discrimination or mistreatment during their lifetimes – including nearly half (48%) who say at one point that they felt their life was in danger because of their race.

          I can tell you from personal experience/observation that a significant percentage of “white” (and Asian) Americans experience the same (e.g., in public school systems and surroundings).  And some have experienced direct personal injury, due to this.

          Far more than the “other way around”, if you were to examine it honestly.

          One might also look at “who” is committing some of the hate crimes against Asians.

          But examining any of this in an honest manner (e.g., based upon data) would not align with the prevailing “progressive” view very well.

          (My fifth comment.)

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