Most of the white, Latino and Asian residents of San Diego are pleased with the Police Department's overall performance, but fewer than half of the blacks in the city share that view, according to a poll made public Wednesday.
The survey, based on telephone interviews with 711 residents in early June, was commissioned by the Citizens Advisory Committee on Police Community Relations. Results were distributed Wednesday to the City Council and members of the committee, which was formed to improve police relations with the community.
Conducted by San Diego pollster Robert Meadow, the lengthy survey revealed that opinions on a plethora of specific issues relating to police performance vary dramatically according to race, with blacks giving police the lowest marks in virtually every category.
On the topic of police-community relations, for example, the percentage of blacks who said relations are "good" or "very good" was 38%, while 68% of the whites surveyed felt that way. When asked whether they feel police treat minorities unfairly, a majority of blacks and Latinos said they believed officers did use a double standard while most whites and Asians disagreed.
'Trying Their Best'
"The data in this survey paint a generally good portrait of the San Diego Police Department," Meadow wrote in summation. "But what is also evident . . . is that all the residents of San Diego do not experience the police the same way, nor do they have the same attitudes toward the police."
Specifically, Meadow said, white residents generally view police as "helpful, courteous public servants" who are "trying their best to do a good job." For a significant number of minorities, however, and blacks in particular, police "are not seen as such a positive force in the community." Instead, they are regarded as "treating minority group members unfairly, and occasionally even severely mistreating them."
Meadow said his findings show that even if officers "do not discriminate in their treatment of people, the perception is that they do."
Police Chief Bill Kolender said he felt that "overall, the report was positive," but conceded that "there are some perception problems, and we understand that."
"While the data reflects that the citizenry generally has a high opinion of the police department, there is room for improvement and we intend to improve," Kolender said. The chief said the survey would prove useful as "a benchmark" by which the department can measure itself in future years.
Kolender said it was important to note that, despite the negative perceptions contained in the survey, most of the respondents had not personally experienced police misconduct but were instead aware of it through media coverage of incidents in the community.
"Very few people had had their own negative contacts," Kolender said. "I think that shows that, with the aftermath of the Sagon Penn (case), there were some problems between police and the black community."
Sagon Penn was tried twice and ultimately acquitted of the major charges in the 1985 shooting death of a police officer and the wounding of another officer, who witnesses said beat Penn with his fists and night stick. The case prompted an outcry in the black community.
Black leaders on Wednesday said the results of the survey were to be expected and indicate lingering problems involving police conduct in minority neighborhoods.
"I'm not surprised, are you?" said the Rev. George Walker Smith, chairman of the newly appointed Civilian Advisory Panel on Police Practices. "It was the minority community asking for a review panel in the first place, so obviously it was the minority community that was having the problems."
The Rev. Robert Ard, a longtime political activist in the black community, said he believes the responses in part reflect the racial composition of the police force.
"There are a large number of whites in the department and I think that when you deal with somebody that you racially identify with, then sometimes that influences your attitude and your behavior, just like it affects you if you're dealing with someone of a different race," Ard said.
Ard dismissed Kolender's contention that publicity about the Penn case influenced public opinion, saying that Penn was "merely the culmination of an awful lot of things that have been building up . . . And I'm still getting complaints about improper behavior all the time."
He added that he hopes the findings will persuade elected officials that the complaints of minorities are real and deserve attention.
In an interview Wednesday, Meadow said the survey responses indicate that "overall, people are generally satisfied with police service." The issue, he said, "is that there are different levels of satisfaction across different sub-groups of the community. And that's what the police department needs and wants to work on through its community relations effort."