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