California police agencies should routinely review officers’ social media, cellphones and computers for racist, bigoted or other offensive content that contributes to disproportionate police stops of Black people, a state advisory board said Monday.
The controversial recommendation comes from community and law enforcement representatives who analyzed nearly 4 million vehicle and pedestrian stops by California’s 15 largest law enforcement agencies in 2019.
The Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board report was unveiled amid calls to defund police and promises from state lawmakers to renew efforts to strip badges from bad officers, make more police misconduct records public, and allow community groups to handle mental health and drug calls where police powers may not be needed.
People who were perceived as Black were more than twice as likely to be stopped as their percentage of the population would suggest, the board said in its fourth annual report.
Black people also had the highest proportion of their stops (21%) for reasonable suspicion, while the most common reason for stops of people of all races was traffic violations. Black people were searched at 2.5 times the rate of people perceived as white.
And the odds were 1.45 times greater that someone perceived as Black had force used against them during a traffic stop compared to someone perceived as white. The odds were 1.18 times greater for people perceived as Latino.
Reform efforts have often focused on increasing training to make officers aware of how their implicit, or unconscious, bias may affect their interactions. Starting this year, a new law also requires agencies to screen job applicants for implicit and explicit biases.
“Unchecked explicit bias may lead to some of the stop data disparities we have observed,” the board said.
Explicitly racist or bigoted social media posts by some law enforcement officers appear to be a widespread problem nationwide, it said, citing a study by the Plain View Project that examined the Facebook accounts of 2,900 active and 600 retired officers in eight departments across the country.
In California, current and former San Jose Police Department officers were found to have shared racist Facebook posts. Other agencies, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and San Francisco Police Department, have been involved in similar issues.
The board recommended that agencies review employees’ social media posts and routinely check officers’ department-issued cellphones and computers to make sure they aren’t showing racist or other problematic behavior.
Betty Williams, president the NAACP’s Sacramento Branch, said the recommendation doesn’t go far enough and should also include officers’ personal cellphones.
Police departments “demand fair and impartial police services for the communities they serve,” responded Chief Eric Nuñez, president of the California Police Chiefs Association. But he said checking officers’ cellphones, computers and social media accounts “would require a significant additional funding source, time and legal issues that have not been properly identified or researched at this point.”
The disproportionate numbers could be driven by demographics, not racism, the Los Angeles Police Protective League board of directors said in a statement.
“What these numbers don’t tell is that in Los Angeles, 70% of violent crime victims are either Black or Hispanic and that 81% of the reported violent crime suspects are either Black or Hispanic,” the league said.
Both the league and the state sheriffs’ association said the broader issue of racial bias must be addressed across society, not just law enforcement.
“Law enforcement agencies across California have embraced change, participated in training, and engaged their local communities on this topic and we will continue to do so,” said Kings County Sheriff David Robinson, president of the sheriffs’ association.
“We’ve done all of the reformist things,” countered Cat Brooks, executive director of Justice Teams Network and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project. “We’ve done trainings, we’ve done body cameras, we’ve done police commissions, we’ve hired from the community. All of these things to tinker around the edges of this very large problem, but really what we’ve been doing is putting Band-Aids on gunshot wounds.”
She said the report’s findings show the need for a “complete transformation” from an emphasis on police and prisons to one focused on addressing root community causes such as hunger and homelessness.
The report’s data is little changed from a year ago when stops involving the state’s eight largest agencies were studied for the second half of 2018, before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other police killings of primarily Black and Latino men sparked nationwide protests and reform efforts last year.
It shows “there is significant work to be done to prevent further disparities in who is stopped, how they are treated when stopped, and the outcomes of those stops,” the board said.
Black people make up 7% of the population but were involved in 16% of California stops in 2019. Those perceived to be of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent accounted for 5% of stops and 2% of the population.
Whites and Latinos were one to two percentage points less likely to be stopped than their proportion of the population would indicate, while those of Asian background account for 12% of the population and just 6% of stops.