I am the son and son-in-law of professional police officers. Both men – now deceased – served in a completely different time and in a different social environment than today. My father never fired his gun or used his night stick in 30 years. My father-in-law once drew his gun when he was under cover in LA to protect his partner. Fortunately, in his words, the bad guy stumbled before I could shoot and slid right over to me, and I handcuffed him. He counted it as a godsend that he retired a month before the Rodney King incident.
And so I approach police violence with a built-in bias. The people I met who take over the police are mostly normal people who just want to go home at the end of their shift. The Good Ol ‘Boys Club, which allowed a lot of bad behavior when you were a friend of the sheriff’s or boss – especially here in San Bernardino County – has been gone for several decades.
No matter how far law enforcement has gone on the road to equality, it will never be far enough to distance themselves from these publicized incidents of a white cop against a black victim. Why?
I know there are a number of media and civil rights groups who are using these tragic events – as few as they are – to protest for change. Which change would be satisfactory? When police funding and presence are cut, violence and crime increase. The same colored quarters that appear to be victims of white cops are soon calling for more cops.
How many decades and miles from the attack dogs of the old south of Bull Conner, don’t black men have to be scared when flashing lights appear behind their cars? Is the history of white-on-black abuse embedded that deeply in the Black American experience?
I wonder if the tremendous pressure the policewoman felt in the recent Minnesota shots contributed to her devastating mistake of grabbing her gun instead of her taser. She knew she had to do this right. The world is now watching every stop. Cell phones are ready to capture your every move. She may have been so concerned about getting it right and quickly made up her mind to use non-lethal force that she got it terribly wrong. Nerves, incompetence or intent?
How do we stop these incidents? How can we understand the causes behind the shootings? In California, we examine perceptions to try to interpret intentions.
In 2018, California law passed the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA). First, RIPA asked the eight largest law enforcement agencies in California to take detailed notes for every vehicle and pedestrian stop. Last year the list of agencies was expanded to include the 15 largest police stations. The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department has been a RIPA participant from the start.
The agencies recorded data on more than 4 million law enforcement stops in 2019. Because of the detailed and varied breakdowns required for reporting, there is a long delay in collecting, reporting, categorizing and interpreting data. However, the numbers for 2018 and 2019 reveal some fascinating statistics.
To understand RIPA, you need to know that the information recorded by the officer is based solely on the officer’s perception of the facts. The officer must record his or her perception of race, ethnicity, gender, impairment or disability. The officer is not allowed to use an ID to make these decisions. For example, during a traffic obstruction you cannot see a person’s driver’s license and then declare them to be Spanish based on their last name. The same goes for gender, which is a much more difficult subject than it used to be. Remember: it is a perception based on appearances and verbal responses, not formal identification.
The RIPA 2021 report – based on 2019 data – shows that the racist makeup of the stops reflects the changing demographics of our state:
- Hispanic: 38.9%,
- White: 33.1%
- Black: 15.9%
- Asian: 5.7%
- Middle East / South Asia: 4.7%
- All other groups: 1.7%
Officials found that over 26,000 LGBTQ people were stopped and a further 4.1% had limited or no knowledge of English. While 46,035 stops were made on people with a perceived disability, it’s frightening that 63% of them were classified as mentally ill.
Unsurprisingly, over 71% of stops were perceived as male. Over 50% of all stops were perceived as being between the ages of 25 and 44 years. We old duffers barely moved the needle at 3.7%. White and Hispanic men between 25 and 34 were the largest stop category.
According to RIPA figures, the time of day has no influence on the racist composition of stops. Some believe that black people are more likely to be attacked during the day in certain neighborhoods because they are easier to identify. Statistics say it doesn’t.
More work, on the other hand, is needed to understand why black people in a patrol car are searched, held to the curb, handcuffed, and removed from vehicles at twice the rate of white people, despite the latter being stopped twice as often. Is this an indication of bias? Do poverty rates, pending arrest warrants, unpaid traffic fines, or vehicle code violations affect this number?
Clearly, the next level of data required is to categorize the fees resulting from stops and searches by races identified in the RIPA numbers to determine their validity.
As we continue to seek ways to bridge the gap between our racial and law enforcement communities, we need to be aware that we are all human. Nobody wants to be a target, and nobody wants to take another’s life. Everyone wants to get home safely.
People who take care of their communities need to keep talking to each other and trying out new ideas together to make us all safer.
Pat Orr can be reached at [email protected].