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The State

San Diego Traffic Stops Higher for Blacks, Latinos

Activists say problem is greater than the numbers show. Police chief acknowledges some officers are not filling out forms.

January 14, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Police Department reported Monday that blacks and Latinos appear "over-represented" in traffic stops and searches compared with whites and Asian Americans, somewhat like findings made last week by the Los Angeles Police Department.

But researchers who helped compile the data said a 28% drop-off in the number of reports by officers "raises serious questions" about the validity of the information. And San Diego Police Chief David Bejarano acknowledged that some officers have ceased filling out forms indicating drivers' ethnicities -- leading civil rights activists to say that the problem is greater than the numbers suggest.

Bejarano, the city's first Latino police chief, said no amount of study will clarify whether there is a more benign explanation, or whether the statistics prove that officers are guilty of "racial profiling." Still, the chief said, he plans to continue meeting with community groups to hear their concerns about traffic stops and searches.

"We do not condone and will not tolerate racial profiling," Bejarano said.

His response disappointed two groups that had urged the Police Department to hire the consultants.

The San Diego office of the American Civil Liberties Union said the chief is attempting to "mislead the public and the media into believing that there is no problem based on race."

And Jimma McWilson, chief operating officer of the San Diego Urban League, said Bejarano is trying to "make a silk purse out of a sow's ear ... it is clear that if you are black or brown, the [San Diego] police are more likely to pull you over and much more likely to search your car...."

Bejarano said it is nearly impossible to determine the ethnic and racial composition of the driving public in San Diego, thus making comparisons difficult, in part because of the proximity of the Mexican border and also because of the high number of tourists in the city.

Some officers have acknowledged that they have stopped filling out the forms because they believe that they cast the department in an unfair light.

According to a study of traffic stops in 2001, blacks represented 10% of stops and 16% of searches. Blacks are 7% of San Diego's estimated driving population.

Latinos represented 28% of stops and 50% of searches but only 22% of the driving population.

For whites, the figures were 50% of stops, 29% of searches and 55% of the driving population; for Asian Americans, 12% of stops, 6% of searches and 15% of the driving population.

For black and Latino drivers, the percentages involving traffic stops rose slightly, but the percentages involving searches dropped sharply.

The study was for the calendar year 2001, when the number of racial and ethnic forms submitted by officers dropped 28% from the year before, Bejarano said. The ACLU and Urban League suspect that officers are not submitting the forms when they search blacks or Latinos.

And the researchers, from Eastern Kentucky University, Vanderbilt University and San Diego State, said the drop-off in completed forms raises "serious questions about the validity of the vehicle stop data."

Bejarano said he was disappointed in the lower number of ethnic-profile forms filed by officers.

"No matter how much quantitative data we generate, we will not be able to answer with any certainty why African American and Hispanic drivers are over-represented in vehicle stops," Bejarano said.

Last week, a study done for the Los Angeles Police Department indicated that blacks and Latinos in traffic stops are pulled over in about the same proportion as their numbers in the population.

The same study concluded, however, that they are far more likely than whites to be removed from their cars and searched after a stop.

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