Take it from a lifelong Californian: My home state is not as liberal as many people here pretend.
When confronted with the homeless, the farm worker, the immigrant, or the public school student with a learning disability, Californians often fail to walk it like we talk it. The same goes for Black people who come into contact with police here.
According to a troubling new study from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), “Racial Disparities in Law Enforcement Stops,” Black Californians continue to experience a totally different policing system than their white counterparts.
The report analyzed data from almost 4 million stops in 2019 by the 15 largest law enforcement agencies in California. They included the California Highway Patrol (CHP), eight police departments (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, San Jose, Long Beach, and Oakland) and six county sheriff’s departments (Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Sacramento, San Diego, Riverside, and Orange County).
They found that Black people are more than twice as likely to be searched as white people, even as searches of Black people are less likely to turn up contraband or evidence of illegal activity. Yet Black people are almost twice as likely to be booked in jail after a stop as white people.
Even after factoring in differences in locales and the context for various stops — for instance those where an office has knowledge of an outstanding warrant—there are still significant racial inequities. While Black people make up about 6 percent of California’s population, they account for roughly 16 percent of all arrests according to the report.
And arrests, of course, are just the beginning of the criminal justice pipeline. Factor in unfair treatment by prosecutors and judges, and Black Californians make up about a quarter of the population of the county jails and probation system, and nearly three-tenths of the prison population.
About this horror show, Californians think… actually, well, we’re not sure what we think.
According to a separate statewide survey of state residents by the PPIC, a solid majority of Californians (62 percent) see the criminal justice system as biased against Black people. But, in the same survey, a majority (54 percent) in this supposedly deep-blue state also say police treat all racial and ethnic groups fairly “almost always” or “most of the time.” By the way, only 18 percent of Black people agreed with the mostly positive view of police.
Thankfully, the numbers that prove the double standard that Black people are all too aware of were available to the PPIC researchers because, in 2015, the California legislature passed the Racial and Identity Profiling Act requiring that—by 2023—all police departments and sheriff departments in the state, as well as the Highway Patrol, collect and report information on perceived race and other characteristics of people stopped by officers.
The report’s main point: It all starts with a stop. “It” here being all the bad things we can imagine might happen in even a brief interaction with a police officer. We’ve seen the videos. We have the receipts. And the “stop” in question is often a routine traffic stop.
As the report notes: “While traffic stops are intended to make our streets and highways safer to travel on, they represent the majority of stops and interactions between officers and citizens.” By reducing stops for equipment glitches or non-moving violations (i.e., expired registration, burned out tail lights, tinted windows etc), the report concludes: “Law enforcement could mitigate some of the racially disparate experiences communities of color face, as well as reduce the risk of injury present for both officers and individuals.”
As the son of a retired cop, who was on the job for 37 years, I suspect that — even as more Americans finally get around to confronting how Black people are treated by police—too many of us are still looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
We tune in at the most horrible, and dramatic moment of an encounter with police. Sometimes, it’s when shots have been fired. In Minneapolis, in May 2020, it was when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
We need to focus our gaze much earlier than that. We need to pay closer attention to the first few seconds of an encounter and watch what happens when a police officer first comes in contact with someone who is Black. That sets the stage for everything that will follow.
So yes, it matters quite a bit who gets pulled over, and why they get pulled over. And yes, it matters a lot who gets searched, and what police find — or don’t find.
If searching Black people doesn’t yield as much incriminating material as searching white people, then why do police in California—like their colleagues around the country—continue to search Black people more often than white people? They’re doing so based on what? We know the answer.
Law enforcement officers cannot afford to continue to be seen as treating the people they come into contact with differently based on skin color. That perception isn’t just wrong. It’s also dangerous for everyone—including the people wearing the badges.
This report is excellent and valuable, albeit with one major flaw. The whole thing could have been date-stamped “1961” instead of “2021.”
While African Americans represent about 6 percent of California’s population, Latinos make up a whopping 39 percent. And it’s been my experience that Latinos are also often profiled by police, singled out for disparate treatment, and mistreated by the criminal justice system as a whole. In fact, Latinos make up more than 40 percent of the California prison population.
It’s fine. I’m used to being ignored. Being one of the 62 million Latinos in the United States means you're often invisible in America’s absurd, stuck-in-the-’60s Black-and-white racial dialogue.
But, sometimes, invisibility can be a blessing. Because I'm neither Black nor white, I can often see clearly a lot of what my friends miss. For example, a lot of my white friends are tired of hearing Black people complain about being treated unfairly by police. Do you know what a lot of my Black friends are tired of? Being treated unfairly by police.
Guess what? They have reason to be, even in supposedly progressive California.